CORVALLIS - A grass-roots collaboration of scientists, college students, and everyone from teenagers to senior citizens is working in Oregon to produce something you would think the state has, but it actually doesn't - a modern, complete manual to identify all of the plants in the state.
Called the Oregon Flora Project, the effort is already six years old and may continue for another decade. It's no small task, considering that Oregon has the fourth largest plant species diversity of any state in the nation - 4,430 species, subspecies and varieties known and probably more yet to be discovered. But this information is critical for studying everything from rare plant conservation to the potential effects of climate change or invasions of foreign species, say experts at Oregon State University who are coordinating this project.
"The last manual of this type was produced in 1961 with data mostly from the 1950s and before," said Scott Sundberg, an OSU research assistant professor and coordinator of the project. "Since then probably one-third of the plant names have changed based on extensive botanical research. We really need this information, and almost anyone can contribute if they are willing to volunteer their time."
So far, 230 volunteers around the state have helped in the project, many of them OSU faculty or members of the Native Plant Society of Oregon, a partner and financial supporter of this project. People interested in contributing to the project can do so in many ways, from providing lists of plant species for an area to entering information into databases.
The state has been divided into 174 "blocks" of 576 square miles each, Sundberg said, and volunteers can "adopt" a block to observe and list the plant species found there.
Eventually, the project hopes to produce a checklist that catalogues the plants growing throughout the state; an atlas that maps information about plant distribution on top of such data as precipitation or elevation; and a flora, which is a manual, in both printed and electronic form, for identifying plants.
"These books are as essential as a dictionary for identifying plants," said Linda Hardison, an OSU research associate. "With Oregon's rich and unique habitats, from coastal dunes to mountain and desert, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming. But this is how people can identify the plants of the state and measure our biodiversity. It's difficult to study anything if you don't know what's out there."
Sundberg says eventually the project may cost $2 million and take up to 15 years. So far, it's been operated on a shoestring budget with free volunteer help, and even small donations are welcome.
It received one substantial boost when Kenton Chambers, professor emeritus at OSU and former director of the OSU Herbarium, started an endowment for the project by selling his 40-year stamp collection for $28,000 and donating the proceeds.
Persons interested in volunteering their help for this project may contact Sundberg at Oregon Flora Project, OSU Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, 2082 Cordley Hall, Corvallis, Ore., 97331-2902, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tax-deductible donations to support the work can be made by sending checks to Sundberg, made out to the OSU Foundation.
A similar flora project that was done in California took 15 years and yielded a 1,400-page book. The data includes such information as species name, habitat, morphological characteristics, distribution, rarity of the plant, elevation range, horticultural value, and whether the plant is native or exotic.
Scientists involved in this project include taxonomists, biogeographers, computer programmers, statisticians, ecologists, cartographers and geoscientists. Individuals helping out range from professional botanists to high school students and retirees looking for a good excuse to take a nature hike.
Among other things, there is always the chance of discovering a new plant species that no one ever knew existed in Oregon. Large areas of the state have never been adequately explored, Sundberg said, especially some of the remote parts of eastern and southwestern Oregon.
From 1975 to 1994, 58 new species, subspecies or varieties of plants were found in the state - one of the newest is calochortus umpquaensis, or the Umpqua mariposa lily. Or, you can look for plants that may be extinct - Clarkia heterandra, the small-fruited clarkia, hasn't been found in the state since 1888. More information about the Oregon Flora Project can be found at its Web site.