Crowd-Sourced Botany


Citizen scientists making observations of invasive Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) along Newtown Creek

As a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden, Daniel Atha had travelled all over the world to study plants in their native habitats.  Then, one day, it occurred to him that he knew more about the plants of Belize than those of New York, the city he calls home.

That has changed.  Since the beginning of 2017, Atha has, in combination with NYBG’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy Dr. Brian Boom, been co-managing a unique focus on the flora of New York’s five boroughs.  Called “New York City EcoFlora,” this project is not only educating the Botanical Garden’s scientists about the city’s natural resources, but also a host of “citizen scientists” as well.

The concept is that volunteering New Yorkers agree to photograph wild plants they observe around the cityscape and upload the photographs using the iNaturalist platform sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.  With each photograph, the time and the place of the observation is recorded.  The identification of the specimen is crowd-sourced to the whole iNaturalistcommunity, which includes interested botanical specialists all over the United States and abroad.

Atha cites as an example of how this works the recent spotting of a weed in a planter bed by a Lower East Side volunteer who was visiting her mother on the Upper West Side. An authority on spurges in west Texas identified the plant in the photograph as Euphorbia hypericifolia, a plant that had never before been observed growing wild in New York. Armed with this information, Atha himself found another population growing spontaneously under a fence on the Botanical Garden grounds. This suggests that this former unknown is naturalized in New York, and so a part now of its flora.

To keep cooperators interested, Boom and Atha post every month on the EcoFlora website a different “EcoQuest Challenge.” The response can be impressive. The October 2018 Challenge, for example, called for sightings of the fall wildflower white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). This brought a flood of some 16,000 photographs.

With the help of 3,541 citizen scientists, EcoFlora has in two years’ focus on the city (2017-2018) recorded observations of 3,180 different species of plants, fungi and lichens.  Given all the disturbance this area has experienced, a surprisingly large proportion of its flora remains native – roughly 65 percent. But the identification of non-native “exotics” by the citizen scientists is useful as well, providing data about invasive plants that can contribute to their deterrence. Any sightings of rarities in the city parks, meanwhile, the Botanical Garden shares with the NYC Parks Department, to ensure these plant protection and preservation.  Taken together, these different kinds of data also have an obvious relevance to land-use planning. “You have to know what’s out there,” notes Atha, “to make wise decisions.”   

Currently, Boom and Atha are applying for a grant to help them spread the concept of EcoFlora to other communities. One avenue they are exploring is to share this model with botanical gardens in other areas of the country. If they succeed, citizen science and crowd-sourced botany may soon be coming to a location near you.

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


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