Online and in the Field: The Brave New World of Botany

By Elizabeth Farnsworth Gazette Contributing Writer

OK, be honest: What’s the stereotype you imagine when you hear the word “botanist”? Perhaps you picture a bespectacled academic pottering about the woods in search of her favorite moonwort. (What’s a moonwort, anyway?) Botany is often thought of as a quaint, Victorian pastime; but those of us who do it for a living think of ourselves more as Indiana Jones adventurers, coming up with new discoveries in the field all the time. This is 21st-century botany, so why not use the latest computer technology to help us out?

“But wait,“ I hear you saying. “We all spend way too much time glued to our computers, and too little time outside, celebrating nature. People can’t learn about the natural world just by Googling it; we need to immerse ourselves in the wonderful habitats around the Valley.“ True, but the cyber world affords a huge amount of valuable information about the species around us. How can we experience the natural world and simultaneously harness the knowledge power and sheer fun of the web? One tool to do that will soon come to a computer near you: It’s called Go Botany!

Go Botany, developed by the New England Wild Flower Society in nearby Framingham, is an interactive, online field guide that will help users learn about thousands of native and naturalized plants of New England. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it’s a free website that anyone can use—from botanical beginners to trained professionals. The Go Botany Simple Key has just launched, in time for the first buds of spring!

Imagine taking a walk in the woods. An unusual tree attracts your attention. Rather than lug a weighty field guide, you whip out your iPad or other tablet computer. A few keystrokes take you to the Go Botany website. Answer a handful of questions about your plant, and you narrow down your list of possible species by the process of elimination. Look more closely, and suddenly you notice all sorts of interesting features you hadn’t seen before—crinkly bark, hairy flowers or toothy leaves. This isn’t just a random process of 20 Questions, though: Using innovative technology, the dynamic Go Botany key asks you the questions about your plant that most efficiently home in on your species, based on the questions you have already answered and the seasonal features you can see. You can glimpse previews of all the candidate species, right at your fingertips. Choosing the closest match, you successfully identify your plant and access a wealth of information about your tree. Here are gorgeous photos, maps showing where your tree lives in North America, a memorable fact or two (hey, did you know this tree’s nuts are a favorite food of bears?) and a list of all its characteristics, from the tip of its flowering branches right down to its roots.

But why keep all that fun to yourself? At the PlantShare section of the Go Botany website, you’ll be able to join a community of plant enthusiasts, create checklists, and share photographs of species you have seen in your backyard or schoolyard. Call it Facebook for forest-geeks. Maybe this tree you’ve found is the first to be reported in your area! Send a message to the PlantShare Bulletin Board to double-check your identification and share your find. Electronic pats-on-the-back will come streaming back. PlantShare will be available later this summer.

Go Botany can also be tailored to any region with a documented list of plants. Take a short trip north to visit the Montshire Museum (Norwich, Vt.) this summer, for example; they’ll feature a customized guide to plants of their Woodland Trail and a colorful interactive kiosk called Hemlock Holmes that challenges kids to identify mystery plants. The Chewonki Foundation (Maine), Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (Connecticut) and North American Orchid Conservation Center (Maryland) will all soon use Go Botany to develop online keys to the plants of their unique settings.


Maybe you’re a teacher looking for new ways to interest your ninth-graders in learning about plants. The New England Wild Flower Society will conduct dozens of free training workshops throughout the region in 2012-13, to introduce how Go Botany can be used in both the classroom and the field. Teachers will be able to post their curricula and modules in the Teaching Resources section of the website.

Next time you take a walk in the woods, iPad in hand, you’ll look for that cool tree you saw last time and know immediately what features to note. Before you know it, you’re hooked on the flora and take a little more joyous notice of the natural world. Technology doesn’t have to alienate us from nature; it can increase our attentiveness and appreciation.

Elizabeth Farnsworth is a bespectacled academic pottering about the woods, ever in search of her favorite moonwort. She’s also Senior Research Ecologist at the New England Wild Flower Society, and scientific illustrator of the recently released Flora Novae Angliae (Yale University Press). And in case you’re still wondering, a moonwort is a kind of fern.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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