Chicago Botanic Garden


Plant Collections Project

A collaboration between the Chicago Botanic Garden, American Public Gardens Association, Morphbank, Florida State University School of Computational Sciences, Google Base, Beijing Botanical Garden, National Trust (UK), Institute of Museum and Library Services, North American Plant Collections Collaborative, and the University of Kansas Biodiversity Research Center and National History Museum—and an anonymous donor

click The Challenge

Persistent and growing threats to biodiversity mandate museums improve how they make their collections available to public audiences and the scientific community. Botanic gardens and arboreta maintain significant repositories of living plant germplasm that are underutilized because they are not easily located.

In a September 2004 North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) report, Dr. Peter Raven, President of the Missouri Botanical Garden, summed up the situation:

"…[NAPCC] need(s) to develop an efficient computer-based system for recording the holdings of gardens, and preferable gardens throughout the world.

"Without knowing who has what … the maintenance and assembly of collections cannot be efficient, and in fact most of what botanical gardens do is wasted or replicated effort, unknown to others and generally not available."

Limiting Factors

Technological disparities between interested institutions and lack of institutional resources are among the foremost limiting factors. Examples:

  • Twenty-three NAPCC members use nine different database management applications.
  • Institutions that do offer data on the Internet provide different fields of data and reference different taxonomic names ("lumpers" versus "splitters").
  • Previous attempts to create nationwide databases of plant information have not been successful, in part because the technology was expensive to implement and maintain.

The Solution

The Chicago Botanic Garden in conjunction with the North American Plant Collections Collaborative of the American Public Gardens Association, the University of Kansas Biodiversity Research Center and Natural History Museum, Morphbank at Florida State University School of Computational Sciences, Google Base, Beijing Botanical Garden, National Trust (UK) with funding from IMLS and private donors, are coordinating the efforts to provide access to the collected knowledge stored within plant record databases. This international effort aims to provide access to records of more than 50,000 taxa in collections located around the world.


Google Base

Google Base provides free access to online data storage using standard web forms or data feeds. Up to 15 digital files are in the following formats: PDF (.pdf), Microsoft Excel (.xls), Text (.txt), HTML (.html), Rich Text Format (.rtf), Word Perfect (.wpd), ASCII, Unicode, and XML as long as they do not exceed 20 megabytes in size. It is available in English and German, and data in Google Base can be accessed using Google, Google Product Search, or by topic-specific portals. Google Base organizes the data by attributes defined by the data provider to assist data users in locating information of interest.

The advantages Google Base offers over competing database platforms include free content housing, ease of distribution of information on the World Wide Web, ease of use, and control of content.


North American Plant Collections Consortium

Conserving the nation's plant heritage is the goal of the North American Plant Collections Consortium members. Thirty-two botanic gardens and arboreta have committed to long-term curation and care for groups of plants with significant taxonomic, horticultural, conservation, agronomic, and ecologic importance. The collection holders focus on groups of plants that naturally grow well in their climate. In New England and the mid-Atlantic states are diverse collections of hardy trees, shrubs, and native plants; in the Midwest the collections focus on perennials and woody plants that can tolerate the harsh environment; in the desert Southwest, collections focus on date palms as well as native and introduced plants that can survive the droughts and high temperatures; in southern California, the collections vary from cycads to Mediterranean plants; San Francisco and the Bay area hold collections of Central American cloud forest habitats; and the Pacific Northwest features collections of native plants and woody plants from similar climates in Chile, New Zealand, and the Himalayas.


Botanic Gardens and Arboreta: More than just a pretty garden

Behind the scenes at botanic gardens and arboreta in America hundreds of staff and scientists study, document, and teach a bewildering array of subjects related to plants, plant conservation, plant propagation, creation of new and improved selections, plant insect, fungal, bacteria and virus pathogens, soil science, ecological research related to plant communities, and conservation of historic cultivars and rare native plants. While some of these activities have been glamorized by fiction writers, the actual day-to-day activities are carried out by dedicated staff with a commitment to making the world a better place in which to live, for plants and animals alike.


National Impact and Intended Results

Long term, the results of this project will significantly improve the primary activity of botanic gardens and arboreta: collecting, studying, and conserving living plants.

Rare and endangered species will be more readily located within living collections, and this will have positive impacts on both in situ and ex situ conservation efforts.

The information to be shared was chosen to meet the needs identified in a survey conducted by participants of eight audiences known to request information about living collections. These eight audiences are as follows:

Botanic garden curators and senior management
Educators and students

Conservation scientists
Weed scientists
Botanic garden and arboreta visitors

Information Examples

What if you are trying to:

  • Find a plant by scientific name, common name, genus, or family name?
  • Find a technical expert on a group of plants or a plant sciences technique?
  • Create a map of all of the sites in nature that a species or group of species has been collected by botanic gardens?
  • Find images, documented true to name, of flowers, leaves, fruit, fall color, and habits? For instance, Spiraea japonica 'Candlelight', as verified by Chicago Botanic Garden, with accession number 696-1999?
  • Find a commercial source for a plant species (assuming at least one of the participants obtained the plant from a nursery)?
  • Create a map of all of the botanic gardens and arboreta that grow a specific plant or group of plants?
  • Locate herbarium, DNA, seed, or pickled plant specimens?
  • Find a reference on flower color, leaves, fruit, and fall color for a particular plant?

Perhaps you:

  • Need data downloaded to your computer in an excel format?
  • Need to know the latitude, longitude, elevation, slope, soil, habitat, and what biological associates were growing where a particular plant was collected?
  • Need to know what plants of conservation concern are currently in cultivation and where they are?
  • Need to locate plants that originated from a specific continent, country, state/province, county, park, or protected area?

The information presented to the general public, researchers, educators, and students by PlantCollections through Portals on the World Wide Web will help answer these questions and many more based upon the 161 discrete fields of data shared by botanic garden and arboreta databases.