Bruce

Volunteer Spotlight: Bruce Homer-Smith – March 2021

Exploration, curiosity, astonishment, patient collaborators, digital expertise, dedication, and a sore derriere are behind Bruce Homer-Smith’s creation of a wonderful online tool: PlantID.netSpending much of his life in Marin, Bruce remembers crossing Raccoon Strait in a canoe from Tiburon to explore Angel Island. Such adventures inspired him to learn about the plants he found and then to share that knowledge with others. His website PlantID.net allows even novices to identify California’s wild plants. It is used by plant lovers for personal enjoyment as well as for conservation and education.

The original inspiration for PlantID.net came during a cross-country bike ride that Bruce and his wife Winnie took years ago from Seattle to Boston—a 90 day ride! That meant six hours per day in the saddle. The first several weeks were physically difficult (getting used to a hard bike seat and bumpy roads). Eventually Bruce realized that if he focused on how sore he was, he wasn’t going to have fun. He needed to occupy his mind, so he set out to learn the names of plants he encountered along the way. He asked farmers, lunch-counter diners, and passers-by to identify local plants. He was astonished that almost no one knew about them! Since Bruce is a database programmer, he started dreaming about how he could organize plant information into a database, which improved his mind set while peddling many hours across the country.

While Bruce was living in Sausalito, he went out several times a week to Mt. Tam, particularly to Railroad Grade. It had great southern sun exposure, manzanitas, and ceanothus. “The bright light, great views, and interesting serpentinite soils all made for good botanizing up there. I rode my mountain bike with an oversized saddle bag holding my camera gear and stopped at every plant I didn’t know. Railroad Grade was the location for my first plant guide.”

When Bruce started his plant cataloging project he sent photographs of plants to Doreen Smith for proper identification. Then his ambitions led him to John Malpas, web developer at Calflora.org, who offered him virtually all of his plant data. John said the most common question asked of Calflora staff was, “How can I learn to identify a plant?” He encouraged Bruce to create an ID-oriented site that was complementary to Calflora.org. John helped Bruce fill his database with data on over 10,000 plants that Bruce further described and photographed. Bruce also collected local plant lists, such as those on the Marin Chapter’s website, to help users focus on the plants at particular locations.

PlantID.net logoAs PlantID.net developed, Bruce continued to rely on collaborators. Dave Long brainstormed early ideas, digitized William Follette’s plant slide collection, and helped him present PlantID.net at a CNPS Conservation Conference. Dave always made himself available when I had questions or sought advice. Kristin Jakob also shared her extensive knowledge with me, combing through spreadsheets of search data, authoring several (trail) guides, and sharing her incredible artwork on PlantID.net.

In addition, Doreen Smith patiently helped Bruce with “a thousand beginner questions.” Kate Wing helped him add mapping information and introduced him to the Muir Woods National Monument staff. Many Marin Chapter members have corresponded with him about ideas and offered corrections.

Bruce remains ambitious with his PlantID.net invention. His latest project is grasses in collaboration with Kristin Jakob. “Grasses are everyone’s bugaboo since they’re so hard to differentiate.” PlantID.net’s layered searching is a boon that allows users to enter what they know (location, awns, flower arrangement, grass type, etc.). It combines pictures and captions designed to help a beginner get to know the basics of plant identification. PlantID.net is designed to be user friendly. As Bruce says, “Have fun with it!”

http://plantid.net