Every plant in the world to be catalogued online

Four of the world's leading botanical institutions are starting a catalogue of every plant on the globe, with plans to make the inventory of at least 400,000 species available for free online by 2020.

More than 400,000 known species to be included in free web database by 2020

A rare tropical Titan Arum flower, which emits a strong odour to attract pollinators, will be among the more than 400,000 plant species to be included in an forthcoming online list of all the world's vegetation. Christian Hartmann (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Four of the world's leading botanical institutions have started a catalogue of every plant on the globe, with plans to make the inventory of at least 400,000 species available for free online by 2020.

Plans for the catalogue called the World Flora were announced Monday by the St. Louis-based Missouri Botanical Garden, New York Botanical Garden and two British institutions, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

They will compile scientific information and images of plant species worldwide, in part to help halt the loss of plant biodiversity around the world, officials said.

"Thanks to advances in our botanical knowledge and in digital technology, an online World Flora is within our grasp," Gregory Long, chief executive officer of the New York Botanical Garden, said in a news release. "It is imperative that we create this resource, which will help us assess the value of all plant species to humankind and be effective stewards to ensure their survival."

Until a few years ago, plant experts weren't sure how many species existed. The Missouri Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, developed a database referred to as the Plant List, which includes about 400,000 species. Officials believe another 40,000 or so species have yet to be discovered.

Collecting pictures of each species

The next step in catalogue development includes adding images of each species and detailed scientific information. The four institutions plan to seek funding from a variety of sources for the effort, said Karen Hill, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a global conservation plan in 2002, with the goal of halting the continuing loss of plant biodiversity. Officials involved in the World Flora project said at least 100,000 plant species worldwide are threatened by extinction.

Developing an online catalogue was one major part of the UN plan, officials said.

Researchers at the four institutions will look at historic data on known plants and review and update it before adding it to the catalogue. New plant species will be added as they are discovered.

Scientists from at least 25 other institutions are expected to participate in the project.

"We all want to see this come to fruition, and the entire international community will benefit from it," said Peter Wyse Jackson, president of Missouri Botanical Garden.