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The Amateur Botanist: how the growth of a science is built through citizen participation

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amateur botanist


I am an amateur botanist. But the word “amateur” comes with a lot of different meanings. It can mean someone who isn’t formally educated, doesn’t get paid for what they do, or someone who is not very good at it. 

However, sometimes it just means somebody who does something because they love it. I am the latter in this world of studying plants, because I simply love plants and botany! Being an amateur does not mean that I don’t spend a great deal of time studying them or thinking about them—I do (a lot). 

As an amateur, I get to spend a lot of time exploring nature, taking notes about what I see, and learning about the amazing world around me.  There’s so much to learn in the field—and more importantly, there is so much beauty and wonder waiting to be discovered!

seasonal living

What is an amateur botanist?

There are many disciplines within botany—or plant science, if you prefer.  Some people focus on plant communities and ecology, others delve into native species, and still others go in for plant breeding.  I myself am interested in native medicinal plants of my bioregion and knowing enough to positively identify them by family.

Amateur botanists like myself are ordinary people who have become accustomed to working with and studying plant life.  We care about plants, grow them in their homes and gardens, and keep track of which ones we’ve grown, while (sometimes) keeping careful records.  We may also engage in more serious study of plants, including propagation techniques and how to identify certain species. 

While the average amateur botanist does not usually possess a formal education in these areas, —they have taught themselves through experience, trial-and-error, and continual study, as has been my experience. Are you one of us?

yarrow plant

The contributions of amateurs

Botanizing gained popularity in the 19th century since it did not require special training or expensive equipment; it was free and provided opportunities for healthful socializing outdoors; and it fostered an appreciation of God’s creation. 

For women, botany was a safe and domestic science. Women could collect and identify plants from their own gardens and those of their friends, or they could go into the pastures, fields, and forests near home with male accompaniment. 

Many women were interested in identifying different kinds of plants and knowing their uses as medicines, dyes, animal feed, and cooking. Botanical drawing was also an approved outlet for women. Some of them published their botanical art in medical books and journals. Even as early as the 1750s, Jane Colden—the daughter of physician Cadwallader Colden—was impressing experts overseas with her contributions to their understanding of the plant life in her region.

Other amateurs cut or uprooted specimens, and some simply collected and identified species. They created herbariums, affixing specimens to heavy paper for preservation and arranging them into categories. 

These people were amateurs who are credited with providing significant contributions to the field of botany through their participatory study.  They took pleasure in knowing that they were contributing to the general fund of knowledge like nature lovers today who participate in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, notify NASA of a meteorite fall, or confer with paleontologists about their fossil discoveries.

Sadly, toward the late 19th century, the study of botany became more professionalized as amateurs and professionals worked together less often. As more specimens were collected, professionals started focusing on biology and plant paleontology. They developed a specialized language that amateurs didn’t use or understand, and thus amateurs were left behind.

amateur botanist

today's amateurs & Participatory botany

Recently, there appears to be a resurgence in both nature study and participatory botany by the amateur botanist. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Elaine Ayers, a historian of botany at New York University, created an online “quarantine herbarium” for people interested in collecting plants. She also electronically gathered pressed plants from interested collectors and amateur botanists. 

In both cases, the plant was collected and arranged and pressed, and in many cases also named, and its collection location noted; it became a botanical document and piece of cultural history as well.

 iNaturalist is another form of participatory botany that became especially popular during COVID-19 and remains so. Those who are seriously involved with this platform make a real contribution through their recorded observations and are learning much about the natural world through their efforts.

Much the way botanizing became popular in the 19th century,  amateur botanists again are taking pleasure in knowing that we are contributing to the general fund of knowledge. 

It is the amateurs who have contributed much to our knowledge of plants. It is my belief that we still have much more to give. I encourage all amateur botanists to continue contributing to this general fund of knowledge, and to continue to create herbariums, use iNaturalist, and add to online databases. To this day, it is the amateur ornithologist who makes most of the contributions in that field. 

Perhaps you are intimidated by what professional botanists have learned about plant biology in their laboratories. Be assured that what we have learned on our wild nature walks and time spent in our gardens is less than basic. 

We know plenty about such fascinating topics as the pollination of plants in our gardens, the biology of seeds and the life spans of plants. We also know about the opening and closing of flowers, the dispersal of seeds, why certain plants grow together, and how fast plants grow! In such knowledge, we may be experts!

field guides

Where Do I start?

Many amateurs begin their interest in botany by finding a book on plant identification. However, knowing a plant’s name is just the first step. Although we often think that someone who knows many names knows a lot about plants, there is still much more to learn. 

Books can only take you so far—the most interesting facts are still out there to discover, and there is plenty of room for amateurs to make these discoveries. Go to the plants themselves. Don’t be satisfied with an outing that tells you nothing more than each plant’s name; behind every plant, there is a fascinating story waiting for us to find out about. There is an orderliness in nature that we should try to uncover.  

Collect specimens during walks, hikes, and from your backyard. This helps you to be more aware of the plants in your immediate vicinity and may prompt you to reflect on how plants can be a strong connection to time and place.

I also know that weeds too are worthy of study. They are the most prevalent and versatile plants on earth, yet we’re not even on nodding acquaintance with them. Remember, that as an amateur botanist, there’s a lifetime of study just outside your door. 

As an amateur botanist, the best way to improve is to do. You can’t collect plants without noticing them, you can’t name them without recognizing differences among them, and you can’t arrange them on a sheet without gaining a haptic sense of how stiff a stem is.  Do these things over and over again, and experience eventually becomes expertise!

amateur botanist

Recommended resources for the amateur botanist


Botany Courses

Botany & Wildcrafting Course by The Herbal Academy – Take a closer look at the plants outside your door to learn how their characteristics, like stem shape and leaf placement, can help you identify them. Complete with botanical drawing lessons and instructions for making a pressed-plant herbarium!

Participatory sites


BudburstWeb Portal/AppAn initiative of the Chicago Botanic Garden, Budbust is a citizen science project and database that tracks plant phenology. Budburst is very accessible and a good option for students from 3rd grade to adult.
Cornell Garden Based LearningWeb Portal/AppCornell University has several data-collection projects around tracking successful varieties in gardens.
Fieldscope from BSCSWeb Portal/AppFieldscope is a tool that can be used with citizen science projects to visualize data. It can be used with established projects like Budburst, or as a platform for small, regional citizen science programs you design.
iNaturalistWeb Portal/AppPrimarily a citizen science driven Biodiversity inventory, iNaturalist is helpful for identifying organisms and provides various teaching resources.
Nature’s NotebookWeb Portal/AppSimilar to Budburst, Nature’s Notebook tracks plant phenology. However, Nature’s Notebook requires more detailed data and is more appropriate for high school and college students.

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