By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Last spring, while perusing the Winter 2017 issue of Sempervirens, the quarterly publication of the Virginia Native Plant Society, I came across a short article announcing plans for a mobile app version of the Flora of Virginia. At the bottom of the article was an invitation to test-drive the prototype. I had made frequent use of the voluminous reference tome in researching information for the series of “Tried and True” fact sheets on our web site and was intrigued by the idea of having this wealth of information eventually stored on my phone or on a tablet.
In mid-March, I contacted Bland Crowder, the executive director and editor of the Flora of Virginia Project, to see if I might be a beta-tester for the app. He responded, telling me there would be many more volunteers than available slots and that testers would be chosen to represent a range of experience in both plants and apps. I indicated that I had been growing native plants for seven years and preparing educational materials on them since joining the Master Gardener program but that my experience with apps was limited.
A month later, I was invited to join the team testing the iOS prototype of the Flora of Virginia App. Nearly 50 volunteers worked with the app on various platforms. Over the spring and summer, we tested seven versions and reported back on our experiences until the initial release Sept. 30, 2017. As announced on the Flora of Virginia Project web site, the app is now available for purchase on Google Play and the Apple App Store. High Country Apps, a company experienced in creating apps on grasses and wildflowers for five other states, developed the app.
Here is a preview of the many features of this helpful app. Note that the accompanying screen shots represent images taken on an iPhone; the Android version may differ slightly. The menu screen clearly leads to the app’s various features.
The 3,164 species of Virginia plants can be browsed by species, genus, or family using either scientific or common names. Resources for each individual species include beautiful photographs and line drawings from the Flora volume, detailed textual descriptions, and a range map that was first introduced in the online Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora. Both native and naturalized plants are included, as are the conservation status and invasiveness information. Individual species can be added to a list of favorites by clicking a star icon in the upper left corner of the images screen.
To assist in identification in the field, a graphic key with icons that represent plant characteristics should bring up a list of candidates, if not a single species. Users can filter plants based on their geographical location. A more precise, traditional dichotomous key is in development and should be added by the end of the year.
The menu category Botanical Help includes profiles of the 928 genera and 189 families of plants in Virginia; charts of basic flower parts and leaves, which will be familiar to Master Gardeners from the botany classes during their training; and a glossary of botanical terms.
Finally, the Reference Library portion of the app includes three lengthy illustrated articles on the history of botanical exploration in Virginia; the nature of Virginia flora resulting from the interaction of geological, climatic, and biological factors; and 50 “hot spots” for Virginia field botany.