We need something interesting to do for the rest of this winter


It’s cold now, and we are spending more time indoors. Walks are shorter, and there is little greenery to lift our spirits.

Having given much thought to the problem of how to deal with wintertime isolation, I have arrived at one particular solution that, I believe, can make this time both interesting and productive, with the added benefit of non-partisan social interaction with others.

The New York Botanical Garden is located in the Bronx, and since 2018, is home to the EcoFlora Project. There were two co-chairs when it started. The first was Brian Boom, then the conservation strategy vice president, although now he is curator emeritus, and is still deeply involved in EcoFlora.

Daniel Atha is the second dynamic force, and is officially the conservation outreach director.

The third EcoFlora conference was held virtually Nov. 8, updating those involved — whether professional botanists or citizen-scientists — as to some of the insights and accomplishments of the project. Dr. Boom moderated and reiterated the objectives: To protect and preserve the city’s native plant species while assembling new and original data on the city’s entire plant community by engaging the public as “citizen-scientists to observe, collect and compile information about the city’s plants.”

Without knowing what is growing within the boundaries of New York City — together with numbers and locations — there is no realistic way to preserve that part of our environment.

Granted this is an enormous task, but computers make vast amount of data meaningful, and citizen-scientists do the data collection. Anyone can be a citizen-scientist. If a person enjoys being outdoors and is willing to look around and actually “see” and record that sighting through an app, they can become a citizen-scientist.

Citizen science is becoming more common as large projects requiring large amounts of data to be inputted while professional staffs do not have the manpower.

The app in question is iNaturalist, easily downloaded and easily used. There are numerous databases or projects that you can join. I am on EcoFlora.

Essentially, the person takes a picture of something growing — although birds, animals and insect pictures are useful as well. If the person has no experience, the app will make certain identification suggestions, including name together with a clear photo and some identifying characteristics. If not, you can share the picture anyway.

It takes two other experienced people to reach the same identification conclusion before the picture is considered “research” grade and is then added to the database. Locations are all downloaded by GPS.

In addition, the botanical garden has a monthly EcoQuest challenge. Each month during the growing season, they highlight a particular plant for the citizen-scientist to concentrate on. Certainly, people can continue with their regular sightings as well.

In addition to highlighting a single plant, they have a complete write-up on the plant, including distribution, history, and a description so that, by the end of a calendar year, any participant will have learned a considerable amount of botany.

While EcoFlora is now in New York City and has also been instituted at four other locations — Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida; Denver Botanical Garden in Colorado; Chicago Botanic Garden in Illinois; and Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix — it is a big country out there. Even if you are not specifically signed up to a particular project — or a project does not yet exist for a particular location — the data will be collected by GPS location and entered for that location.

The first obvious question is, “How will this project aid our country that is feeling in such disarray?”

The simple answer to my question is that everyone can participate, and the natural world is void of partisanship. People can even create their own project, like a particular block, or park, or section of a walking path. People working on a joint project engenders non-controversial conversation. Something we can all use right now.

Since it is winter, and plant have gone to sleep, why would anyone be interested in joining EcoFlora now?

Before the spring explore past EcoQuest challenges on the botanical garden website at NYBG.org. Download the iNaturalist app and explore its possibilities.

Create a local iNaturalist group with your neighbors and children. This can be done within a single apartment house, or just a particular block.

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Sura Jeselsohn,