RainforestPlants – A Web-based Tool

RainforestPlants is a web-based tool for learning tropical botany, specifically the recognition and identification of plant families. Sixty-five common flowering plant families are described, providing a broad, but not overwhelming introduction to the subject.



RainforestPlants was developed by Scott Shumway (Wheaton College, Norton, MA) and Susan Letcher (Purchase College, SUNY, Purchase, NY). The families, genera, and species included are representative of La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, an important training ground for tropical botanists (McDade et al 1994). However, these families are prevalent across the Neotropics, giving the website a much broader applicability.


RainforestPlants was designed for students who come to the tropics for a short period of intense study, often with little prior knowledge of tropical biology or basic botany. The mix of simplicity combined with breadth of coverage will also make RainforestPlants a valuable resource for advanced students of plant systematics, dendrology, ecology, and ethnobotany throughout the Neotropics. Similarly, we hope that it will pique the interest of non-botanists interested in knowing more about the plants with which their study organisms interact.


Upon entering a tropical forest, a student is overwhelmed by the diversity of plants and by the seeming impossibility of ever sorting them out.  RainforestPlants provides several ways for students to begin to make sense of this botanical diversity by organizing it into taxonomic groupings. An introductory section provides guidelines on “How to Examine a Plant” in the field. Once basic features, such as leaf complexity, phyllotaxy, and presence or absence of stipules are ascertained, the user is guided through a series of tests that are helpful for key identification features such as exudates, odor, leaf characteristics visible under a hand lens, and bark strength. A fully illustrated glossary helps the user learn a basic botanical vocabulary.

The information provided in RainforestPlants makes it possible to identify most tropical plants to the level of family using one of two user-friendly keys. The first is a variation on a key published by Gentry (1996). The second is the matrix developed by Dr. Humberto Jimenez-Saa for use in teaching tropical dendrology.  The first works for all 65 families, while the second works for trees. The family pages provide a way to identify some of the more common genera in a family.  In some cases, species-level identification will also be possible.  A page of “top ten lists” lets the student know which of these families, genera, and species are most abundant and species-rich in old-growth forest at La Selva. Hopefully this will provide the students with a framework for organizing and expanding their knowledge of tropical plants.

Each family is briefly described on its own page. The defining characteristics and economic uses for each family are written in English and Spanish with a minimum of technical jargon. Descriptions are followed by a list of the genera and numbers of species found at the La Selva Biological Station. A line drawing shows a representative species. Field marks to be employed for identification are provided for each family and are followed by color photographs illustrating these key features and providing examples of important genera within the family.
The palms are one of the quintessential groups of tropical plants.  Even the neophyte botanist can point out a member of the palm family with a fair degree of confidence. The abundance of individuals and the diversity of species of palms are unusually high in the La Selva forest (Hartshorn and Hammel 1994). A user-friendly key has been created that will enable the identification of 23 of the 34 species found at La Selva.  The remaining are either uncommon in the forest or non-native cultivated species. The palm key links to descriptions and photographs of each species.  A pdf link enables users to print out the key and carry it into the field.

Future Developments

In the future the authors plan to develop a version of RainforestPlants that can be used in the field on hand-held electronic devices, such as the ipad and smart phone.

  • Taxonomy provides a foundation for ecology and conservation (McNeely 2002).
  • Training a new generation of tropical ecologists will depend on making taxonomic information accessible, relevant, and attractive.
  • RainforestPlants fills an important niche by providing an entry point into the complex world of tropical plant taxonomy.

Literature Cited

  • Gentry, A.H. 1996. A Field Guide to the Families and Genera LaSelvaof Woody Plants of Northwest South America (Columbia, Ecuador, Peru) with Supplementary Notes on Herbaceous Taxa. University of Chicago Press.
  • Hartshorn, G.B. and Hammel, B.E. 1994. Vegetation and Floristic Types. In McDade, L.A. et al. 1994. La Selva: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Rain Forest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Jimenez-Saa, H. 2008. Tropical Dendrology. http://www.hjimenez.org/dendrology.html
  • McDade, L.A. et al. 1994. La Selva: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Rain Forest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • McNeely, J.A. 2002. The Role of Taxonomy in Conserving Biodiversity. Journal for Nature Conservation 10:145-153.


Received 11 July 2012; Published on line 15 July 2012.
© 2012 The Author(s)
Tropicalbio.org © 2012 by The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation