Citizens and Scientists Team Up: The New Oregon Plant Testament

Howellia aquatilis

Howellia aquatilis

Groundbreaking yet somewhat ominous, the Oregon Flora Project (OFP) recently released the first Oregon-exclusive plant ID manual to be published in over 70 years. Compiling so much data has also brought to light some changes taking place in our local ecosystems and demonstrates the power of large-scale communication and technology.

The Flora of Oregon is the first of three print volumes collectively representing a milestone in Oregon botany as it includes illustrations, color pictures, maps, even a chapter on regional destinations in Oregon.

The Book and Community That Built It
With over 3,600 known native plant species, Oregon offers a vast array of habitats and niches. “I am just in awe of the diversity of plants that Oregon has,” said Director of Oregon Flora Project Linda Hardison. From the iconic Douglas fir to the little known Malheur wild lettuce, the OFP has worked for over 20 years to catalog every species of plant they could get their hands on.

Hardison explained that chapters on Oregon ecology, notable Oregon botanists, and specific locations in Oregon to visit “hold a lot of interest for a broad audience.” Taxonomic keys allow anyone to figure out what plants grow along their favorite hiking trails. “The whole idea of having keys to identify plants is that you can start without knowing anything at all and ultimately end up with the name of the specific plant you have in your hand,” said Hardison. While the book offers pictures and maps, the OFP website offers a database of professional and amateur photos and a full atlas capable of displaying several layers at once.

Another beautiful aspect of the project is the role played by the community. The entire project, from salaries to publishing costs, is funded through donations and grants. Volunteers take part in literature reviews, specimen identification, office work, and documenting plants in the field. “We always welcome individuals to share and identify pictures they have and places where they observed plants because that adds all the more information to our knowledge of plant distributions,” said Hardison.

Findings: Happy and Unhappy
In linking all this information and technology together, they have made some happy finds. This was the case with Howellia aquatilis, last seen in the 1930s before being rediscovered the day before Flora of Oregon was to be published. They also had some not-so-happy finds. In fact, 159 taxa have either vanished or been extricated from Oregon due in part to urbanization and extensive agricultural practices.

Humans and animals often play the unwitting host by transporting seeds and plant fragments around the country. While this is all too often the case with invasive species, a more subtle process is that of “range extension.” This can be seen around the southern and eastern borders of Oregon where juniper trees are encroaching into the valleys from higher altitudes and certain species of Lomatium normally found in the Siskiyous have also been found in small pockets within Oregon.

According to Hardison, “You can ask the question: Are there enough significant changes to our water and our temperatures that allow these plants that have certain growth requirements to live in places they didn’t use to because it was too moist, or a little cooler?”

However Hardison assures us that nothing the OFP has come across is cause to panic just yet.

What’s Next: How You Can Sleuth a Species
More than anything, this effort demonstrates how much we can learn when teaming professionals, hobbyists, and amateurs together, and how the ease of file sharing makes an effort like this possible with few financial resources .

The purpose of the book and goal of the OFP is to arm the population with the tools to monitor our ecosystems on the state level. Hardison views the book as “a way to encourage exploration” among professionals going out in the field and nature-goers alike. Indeed Hardison suggests checking out the section in Flora of Oregon on the William L. Finley and Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuges to begin your botanical adventures.

Here in the Willamette Valley, we have only tiny pockets of protected land containing plants in their natural communities. Furthermore their proximity to human development leaves them constantly vulnerable to continued expansion and invasive species colonization. Documenting every species of plant in the state is a monumental undertaking, but one made possible by the collaboration of thousands of individuals across Oregon, and honestly, it’s awesome fun to get out and see what’s around us.

 Pick up a copy of Flora of Oregon on the OFP website, Then, hit the trails and help the team make history.

By Anthony Vitalea