At their annual conference this week in St. Louis, an international group of botanists are working on two efforts to integrate the Web into their efforts. Called the US Virtual Herbarium and the Open Science Network for Ethnobiology, both are trying to make education and use of plant materials easier for scientists around the globe.

Map source: Ben Legler, University of Washington and Derick Poindexter, Appalachian State University

The two are completely different efforts, but the idea is to extend botanical knowledge through various Web-based materials and allow scientists and students to collaborate online. A herbarium is typically a huge collection of dried plants maintained by large universities and botanical gardens - two of the largest are found at the Bronx, NY and St. Louis, Missouri. To give you an idea of the size of these things, the St. Louis collection contains more than 5 million plants and is housed in several buildings. There are several hundred others located all over the country as you can see by the map above.

Led by Mary Barkworth, a professor at the Utah State University, the project aims to coordinate all of these heretofore independent herbaria efforts around the country. The virtual edition has just gotten started, and the researchers are figuring out common data markups and trying to catalog the individual plant species that each institution has on file, which Barkworth estimates is in the several millions. Part of the problem is that the plant collections go offline, as universities change their funding and science emphasis, and are either tossed aside or dispersed to interested collectors. So, tracking these herbaria down isn't a simple task. Another problem is that these collections aren't static: researchers are continually adding to their collections.

Eventually, the entire catalog will be imaged and placed on the public Internet so that researchers from anywhere can find a particular leaf, fern or seed. Right now there is the Index Herbarium maintained by the Bronx NY Botanical Garden here, but it is more a collection of pointers to institutions, rather than a database of the actual plant materials itself.

The Open Science network is an entirely different effort, but also presented its progress at the biology conference this week. Here more than 40 academic institutions are trying to help science educators improve their curricula with all sorts of virtual tours: you can take a recorded video walk in the woods with a noted bio prof and hear him provide commentary and descriptions of plant life, for example. It aims to make science more hands-on and interactive and engaging. There are links to lesson plans, lectures, and summer field courses that students can take.