Go Botany! A 21st-Century Approach to Learning About Plants

by Elizabeth Farnsworth

All of us who grow plants, design with plants, or simply admire plants know how to recognize different species. But with over 3,500 species, subspecies, and varieties growing around New England alone, identifying and keeping track of the names of all those plants can be a daunting task, yet one that is hugely rewarding. How can you learn about them all? Now, a new, convenient tool is at your fingertips whether you’re on your smartphone, iPad, or laptop: Go Botany!

Go Botany is one-stop shopping for information on all 3500 plant taxa in New England, plus tips for teachers and PlantShare.  Credit:  New England Wild Flower Society.

Go Botany is one-stop shopping for information on all 3500 plant taxa in New England, plus tips for teachers and PlantShare. Photo credit: New England Wild Flower Society.

Go Botany, developed by the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, MA, is an interactive, on-line field guide that can help you learn about all of the native and naturalized plants of New England. It doesn’t include cultivars, but covers the vast majority of plants you are likely to encounter in the wild or the not-so-wild landscape. It’s a free website, built with funding from the National Science Foundation, which anyone can use – from botanical beginners to trained professionals. But, you might ask: why do I want to spend time on a computer just to learn about plants?

Just Follow the Questions

The Internet affords a huge amount of information about the species around us, and Go Botany harnesses the knowledge power and sheer fun of the web to build awareness of the great outdoors. New, ever-smaller technology allows you to get outdoors and access information without having to lug heavy field guide-books in your backpack; simply pack your tablet computer instead. When you next encounter an unfamiliar plant, it will take just minutes and a few key strokes to learn all about it.

Use Go Botany to identify plants at any time of year, based on the seasonal features you are able to observe.  Photo credit:  Aaron Ellison.

Use Go Botany to identify plants at any time of year, based on the seasonal features you are able to observe. Photo credit: Aaron Ellison.

Here’s how it works. You’re taking a walk in the woods. A lovely orange flower attracts your attention. You take out your iPhone and link to the Go Botany website. First, figure out what broad group your plant is in: is it woody? No. Is it under water? No. You think it might be some kind of lily. Browse through some gorgeous photos and even watch a brief video to learn more about lilies. Yes, that’s it; your plant is a type of lily, but which type? Now, the program will prompt you to answer a handful of easy questions about your plant such as how many leaves it produces and their arrangement along the stem. This isn’t just a random game of Twenty Questions, though. Using innovative technology, the dynamic Go Botany key asks you the questions about your plant that most efficiently allow you to home in on your species, based on the questions you have already answered and the features that you tell the computer you can see. For example, if you can’t see leaves, access more questions about flowers; in the dead of winter, answer more questions about the seed pods and stem. Answer as few or as many questions as you can. The program keeps jargon to a minimum, and all terms are defined with a pop-up, illustrated glossary.

Look at the Detail

Looking more closely, suddenly you’ll notice all sorts of interesting features you may not have noticed before. You can see previews of all the candidate species, as you narrow down your list of possible species by the process of elimination. Choosing the closest match, you successfully identify your lily and can navigate to a richly illustrated page with lots of information about it. Here are colorful high-resolution photos and technical drawings, maps showing where the lily species lives in New England and North America (a good indicator of hardiness tolerances), a memorable fact or two, habitat affinities of the species (a good indicator of where it will thrive in the garden), wetland indicator status, rarity or invasiveness, and a list of all its characteristics.

Use Go Botany to identify plants at any time of year, based on the seasonal features you are able to observe.  Photo credit:  Aaron Ellison.

Use Go Botany to identify plants at any time of year, based on the seasonal features you are able to observe. Photo credit: Aaron Ellison.

The Go Botany Simple Key allows you to identify 1,200 of the most common native and naturalized plants of New England (including many invasive species), and the fully interactive “Full Key” identifies all 3,500 taxa. For the more technically experienced botanist, an interactive, richly illustrated Dichotomous Key, based on the region’s most up-to-date and comprehensive guide,  Flora Novae Angliae by Arthur Haines (Yale University Press, 2011), is at your fingertips. You can easily navigate this key, track your choices, and retrace your steps; no more flipping pages. All these keys and information resources can be useful to designers and landscapers seeking to better understand the New England flora and use a wide variety of plants to inform planting plans.

Share What You Find

At the PlantShare section of the Go Botany website, you can join a community of plant enthusiasts and share photographs and descriptions of species you have seen. Landscapers and designers could use PlantShare to create a customized checklist of all the plants they have used in a garden or have encountered growing together at a field site, complete with photos, geo-coordinates, and extra information. Other PlantShare members can help you confirm your identifications and offer tips on growing conditions and propagation. Go Botany also can be tailored to create identification keys for any region with a documented list of plants. For example, the Montshire Museum (Norwich, VT), Chewonki Foundation (Maine), Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (Connecticut), Concord Museum (Massachusetts), and the Smithsonian Institution’s North American Orchid Conservation Center (Maryland) will all soon use Go Botany to develop online keys to the plants native to their unique settings.

Next time you notice an intriguing plant in the wild that inspires your own planting ideas, reach for your hand lens and your computer. Before you know it, you’ll be recognizing a host of new plants and expanding your design palette. Technology doesn’t have to alienate us from nature; it can get us genuinely “plugged in” to plants! Visit Go Botany at http://www.newenglandwild.org/gobotany.

About the Author

Elizabeth Farnsworth is Senior Research Ecologist and Interim Director of Education at the New England Wild Flower Society. She thanks the team of talented computer programmers, botanists, image collectors, web designers, and educators, plus the National Science Foundation and generous donors of photographs, funds and expertise, for their efforts to create Go Botany. Elizabeth may be reached at efarnsworth@newenglandwild.org.