OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Oregon "Plant Atlas" offers mass of new data

03/10/2005

CORVALLIS - A new Oregon Plant Atlas is now available on the web, the result of years of work and a grass-roots effort by hundreds of volunteers and botanical professionals. It may benefit everyone from land use planners to scientists, home gardeners or lovers of wildflowers.

The atlas is being released by the Oregon Flora Project, which is based in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University.

The Oregon Flora Project is an ambitious initiative to study, catalog and make available information on literally every vascular plant in the state - each of the 4,516 species, subspecies and varieties of flowers, grasses, ferns, trees and other plants that grow in the wild. The challenge is huge, because the ocean dunes, forests, valleys, mountains and high desert of Oregon make it one of the most botanically diverse states in the nation.

A flora of Oregon was last done more than four decades ago and is badly out of date.

The new atlas was one of the key goals of the flora project, along with production of the actual flora - or reference manual for identifying plants - and a plant checklist and photo gallery. The atlas is on the web at http://www.oregonflora.org.

"The information in the Oregon Plant Atlas will be useful for a broad spectrum of users," said Linda Hardison, an OSU research associate and coordinator of the Oregon Flora Project. "It's a real treasure trove of data. Anyone looking for information about a particular Oregon plant can discover where it is known to occur, other plants that may be found at that location, and a great deal more."

Other maps that illustrate rainfall, topography, and ecoregions can also be superimposed over the plant location maps, providing more information about the plant and its native ecosystem.

The creators of this web-based system envision it being used primarily by botanists and other science professionals, but also by land developers, restoration experts, ecologists and historians. Botanists might use it to track the spread of invasive weeds in the state. A home gardener who wants to plant some native plants or wildflowers could easily determine what would grow well in a certain location. K-12 teachers and students could use the atlas in class projects.

And anyone who simply wants to go for a walk in the woods now has more information available than ever before about the local plants they might see on their stroll.

The plants included in the survey are those that are growing in Oregon "without cultivation," educators say. In other words, it might not include an exotic plant obtained from a nursery. But if that same plant escaped the confines of someone's backyard and began to reproduce naturally in the wild - whether it's native to Oregon or an invasive newcomer - it would be included in the atlas.

The atlas currently has 385,000 records of observed plants or plant collections that have been incorporated into a computerized database with many sophisticated mapping capabilities.

Some records are what botanists call "vouchered," meaning the plant record comes from an actual dried specimen documented in a herbarium, such as the large OSU Herbarium or others like it.

"Unvouchered" observations of plants are made from many sources, including state agencies, interested volunteers, and private groups, especially the Native Plant Society of Oregon.

"Volunteers have been indispensable to the creation of this atlas and other goals of the Oregon Flora Project," Hardison said. "Hundreds of people have contributed both money and time to assist with this work, including more than $300,000 in the past 10 years to help keep the project going." Even though the flora project information is relevant to federal and state research projects, and work is under way to secure more stable and long-term funding, the work still depends on individual donations to fund basic expenses, Hardison said. Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation to support this work can send a check to Friends of the Oregon Flora Project, Box 402, Corvallis, Ore., 97339.

People wishing to volunteer their time to assist with the project may contact Hardison at (541) 737-4338. There is work for people of all skill levels and ages, and past volunteers have included everyone from professional botanists to retired people looking for an excuse to go for a walk outdoors.

The organization recently experienced a profound loss, as the founder and director of the Oregon Flora Project, Scott Sundberg, passed away last December.

"The staff and supporters of the project have done a tremendous job at maintaining progress," Hardison said. "Completion of the Oregon Flora Project will be a fitting tribute to Scott, who devoted much of his life to creating a new flora for the state."

Some volunteers with the work have become its most enthusiastic supporters.

"In a way, it is fitting that this should have been such a grassroots sort of thing," said Jerry Igo, a naturalist and botanist from Mosier, Ore. "Instead of a huge federal agency that could have put a few million into a flora project, but hasn't and won't, it is heartening to see that many dedicated people will get it done.

"Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to go out there and identify everything," Igo said. "Well, it's been nearly 200 years and it is high time we had an inventory."