Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cultivated Flora of North America Project

As a member of an ad hoc working group’s steering committee which is planning an effort to create a Cultivated Flora of North America, I am excited to be able report on some of the topics proposed at a meeting at the National Arboretum March 5th, 2008. The meeting was led by Dr. Peter Raven and included Steve Clemants, Tom Elias, Clement Hamilton, Kevin Nixon, Bart.O’Brien, Joseph Kirkbride and Alan Whittemore. The importance of the science of systematics in general and its continuing chronic lack of support at a federal level, and for horticulture in particular, continues to occupy my free time. As we move towards ever increasing cycles of regulation and legislation, we also move towards less and less study, research and information. Whole collections are now without curators, such as scale insects at USDA ARS and, to the best of my ability to understand, the rust collection at Purdue, partially due to the belief that all information is already at our collective finger-tips on the web and, therefore, there is no need to have actual real types somewhere. And, partially due to the current mind set that someone else will take care of the problem at no cost to us. This is a mistake akin to thinking that the rivets which support a bridge are in no need of regular review and testing.

A working sub committee of the Flora team consisting of Steve Clemants, Chris Freeland, Clem Hamilton, Chuck Miller, Kevin Nixon, Bruce Ponman, Heidi Schmidt,
Alan Whittemore, John Wiersema, and Jim Zarucchi met in February at the St Louis Botanical Gardens to address the possible functions (anticipated user demands) of a Cultivated Flora of North America.

Under consideration are the abilities of the proposed system to provide or supply:
• A search by Name
• An ability to identify an unknown plant
• A capability to select a plant to satisfy particular horticultural requirements
• A process to browse for information

The flora would present or “know” “standardized” names, and would offer a method to identify a plant (description + illustration) with a way to find by name to confirm identity and/or identify by character states. In addition, the Flora would locate exemplary living specimens, offer horticultural information, give information helpful for buying the plant, assist in the selection of a plant for specific use/situation. The Flora would also provide information about origin, ethnobotany, invasiveness, phylogeny, as well as any legal information.

At this time it is proposed that pages would be defined by taxon:
• Genus
• Species
• Hybrids
• Infraspecific taxa (subspecies, varieties)
• Cultivar groups
• Cultivars

It is clear to the working group that details are many and that these proposals are for further consideration, critiquing and alteration. The group thinks that users should be able to browse by recommended scientific name, though under which authority is still under active discussion. Browsing should also include selective synonymy, common names (recommended w/ selected synonymy), cultivars (incl. groups when appropriate), hybrids at all ranks, and the ever troublesome, trademark names.

Identification of plants would include a short diagnostic description, a full technical description, photographs, and other imaging. Cultural information would include:
• Propagation
• Culture
• Pests/ disease susceptibility resistance
• Soils
• Hardiness
• Moisture
• Sun/shade
• Urban

The Flora’s interactive abilities would include access to detailed assistance on a wide range of horticultural information such as: garden-relevant morphology (e.g., habit, evergreen/deciduous, size, colors); whether the plant is annual/biennial/perennial; its cultural, hardiness, and soil needs; and special landscape uses. Other accessible information under consideration include:
• History
• Origin, provenance
• How used: ethnobotany, economic botany [entrance?]
• Toxicity
• Invasiveness
• Conservation status
• Phylogeny
• Taxonomic information
• Automatic search of literature (Agricola, Google scholar, BHL)
• Genbank
• Treaties
• Federal laws
• State laws
• (Invasive, noxious weeds, conservation status, PBR status

This is a simplified overview, and much preparatory thought and work is still needed and in progress.

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