Starting in the 1970s, my husband Tim and I hiked and backpacked throughout California. Mountains, deserts, forests, seacoasts, and everywhere in between. Our goal was to photograph as many California native plants as we could find. We didn’t quite get to all of the estimated 6,500 native plants, but we did amass more than 40,000 photos of several thousand California natives. At some point the inevitable question arose. What do we do with all these photos? Although we had cataloged each plant’s name, location, and GPS coordinates, our digital photos kept accumulating on our computers in very large virtual piles.
Building a database to organize our photos seemed to be the way to go. A searchable database to answer pesky questions: What was that Eriogonum we saw on the top of Mount Eddy? How many different kinds of Calochortus have we photographed so far? Our imagined database would also be something we could learn from: How do the leaves of different Asclepias compare? To prepare for a field trip, we could review the plants we’d already seen in Anza-Borrego or Tilden.
Although we both have other skills besides our backgrounds in botany, creating a database was not one of them. Our luck turned when we took a plant walk on Mount Diablo with CNPS East Bay’s Gregg Weber. Not only is Gregg a knowledgeable native plants enthusiast, he’s also an experienced programmer. As we plotted our course, we decided to create a website that would allow us and others easy access to our database. So that’s how Total-Plant.org was born.
Morphing from our private database to a public website became a new challenge. From the very beginning, we wanted to create a website that helps people identify and learn about native plants. A site without fees or passwords. A site that would be useful to a wide range of first-timers as well as seasoned professionals. As we brainstormed ideas over several months, one idea emerged as the heart of our website design.
Whenever Tim and I keyed out plants we came across, we routinely confirmed what we identified by looking at photos of the plant—sometimes in a book, sometimes online. The main problem we ran into was that often the photos available to us only showed a plant’s flower—not its leaf, fruit, or even what the entire plant looks like. If we didn’t have the flower to help with identification, we weren’t always sure we got it right. To address this problem, we wanted a collection of photos that showed a plant’s habitat, the entire plant, leaf, flower, and fruit. Total Plant.
Capturing the different aspects of a plant usually required going back at different times of the year to find a plant in bloom or in fruit. As we built the website, we had to learn more about what to photograph to help with identification. There were myriad new considerations and decisions to be made. One challenge we ran into was a plant’s leaves. At some point, we realized some plants have differently shaped leaves depending on whether they’re basal or cauline (clustered near the ground or growing on the stem). Often, we had to make return trips in order to photograph both types of leaves. We didn’t know that some apparently leafless plants like Ephedra and certain cacti actually have leaves. More return trips.
Tim and I launched Total-Plant.org in 2013. At first, we called it A California Native Plant Photo Library to underscore the visual emphasis of our site. Since then, we traveled, photographed, and added to our site. There are now 65,000 photos of nearly 4,000 California natives.
We began a major overhaul of the website in 2017. We expanded ways to search for a plant by name, location, flower color, or bloom time. We created pictorial keys to identify plants by flower or leaf characteristics. We added ways to compare photos of plants and plant parts. There’s even a page to “Quiz Yourself.” To fill in gaps in our collections of photos, we also set up a submission protocol for others to contribute photos. We’re especially eager to add photos of plant aspects we don’t have on our website.
Tim, Gregg, and I had nearly completed our major revision by early 2019 when Tim died of pancreatic cancer. Tim and I had been together for almost 38 years. This was a project near and dear to Tim. So with Gregg’s help, I continue to monitor and update the site. Although I was planning to travel and add more plant photos, the pandemic hit. I do manage to take a few local hikes, but that’s about it for now. A recent development is a collaboration with Calflora to add plant photos they are missing. I was able to include photos of plants from our trips to Mexico and New Mexico that are also native to California.
The photos above show the habitat, plant, flower, leaf, and fruit of gray mule’s ears (Wyethia helenioides). The photos below show our website’s Home page and a sample page from the Comparing Plants function. I invite you to take a look at Total-Plant.org. Even if you don’t want to dive in too deeply, you can just enjoy seeing native plant photos from throughout the state. Armchair botanizing—especially given all the travel restrictions and uncertainties we’re facing. Take a look. It’s free!
All photos of Wyethia helenioides and photos included in the Total-Plant screenshots are by Tim Lukaszewski and Paul Preston, Total-Plant.org, ©2020.
— Paul Preston