Data Management at a Botanic Garden

The 385-acres of the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) could not be maintained without the work of dedicated staff, hundreds of volunteers, and careful data management. During my residency at CBG, my mentor, Leora Siegel, arranged an introductory meeting with the head of the Living Plant Documentation, Boyce Tankersley, to help me understand how the management of over 2.6 million plants is possible.

One of the few botanic gardens with AAM (American Alliance of Museums) accreditation, the Chicago Botanic Garden maintains records much like museums do, however, the collection items at CBG happen to be living (and thus can die, move, create new items, etc.). Each plant that enters the collection is given an accession number and deemed to be a member of the permanent collection or given “seasonal” status as a part of a temporary collection (like the orchids that were on view in the orchid show that closed at the end of March). This data is all managed through an internal database.


One of the thousands of “seasonal” orchids from the orchid show.

The records that are associated with the plants hold information about “each plant’s scientific name, common name, plant family, growth habit, origin, location, and ornamental characteristics.1The information is linked to reference material located in the CBG’s Lenhardt Library. Most of this information is passed on to the garden app, GardenGuide, and the web applications, What’s in Bloom and Plant Finder. The app can be used to locate plants in the garden (with a location accuracy within centimeters) and provides images of the plant provided by the Digital Photography team.

The Digital Photography team of Living Plant Documentation is led and run by a group of volunteers. What started as an identification aid for volunteers updating information for What’s in Bloom, turned into a huge set of photographs that serve as a “digital herbarium” for distance researchers. Dorothy Peck, Digital Photography team leader and CBG volunteer, leads a small team of volunteers to photograph plants from established viewpoints. The team worked with researchers to learn which viewpoints are important for which types of species (all plants will have photos with their location and habitat areas, the detail images and orientation of flower, leaf, root, etc. can vary from there). The collection of images can then be sent to distant researchers to professionally identify the species and research the data at important life stages. Additionally, images from CBG are shared with the Encyclopedia of Life, a digital encyclopedia of all living species. These images also aid the volunteers that work on the garden signage. Plant labels are made in house and distributed across the garden to help visitors identify plants by scientific and common names. The signs have to be maintained for accuracy throughout seasonal changes.


CBG image of Clethra alnifolia ‘Rosea’ used on Encyclopedia of Life page .

In addition to the plant data, Living Plant Documentation manages garden weather data and soil data. This information is valuable to researchers who want to gauge changes over the years and so garden staff can improve growing techniques that promote soil health.

The plant database is a huge resource for information about plants in the garden, additionally, the garden staff interacts with the database to place plant orders which can be tracked from request, to approval and receipt to installation. If anything gets lost or changed along the way, there are records to consult for clarification.

It was exciting to see the amount of data managed by the Living Plant Documentation department and to hear we share similar goals about maintaining clean and interoperable data that works with multiple biodiversity resources.

In other news: the NDSR BHL residents gave our first presentation last week at DPLAFest in Chicago. This week we prepare to present again at NDSR Symposium in DC! Stay tuned for our reflections from both of these conferences.

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4 thoughts on “Data Management at a Botanic Garden

  1. Pingback: Data Management at a Botanic Garden | AMBIENTE/BAMBU/CRISTAL

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