Ninety thousand plants

Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is a native North American wildflower. I knew it was native on the West Coast, but I had no idea that it was also native in Massachusetts until I looked it up in the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database, gateway to a treasure-trove of information on native and naturalized plants.

NINETY THOUSAND PLANTS. Actually, a few hundred more than that. That's how many plants are listed in the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database, an invaluable resource any time but especially this time of year when many of us are thinking about spring planting.

Although it's never safe to say that any data source is "complete", it's hard to imagine that there's a native or naturalized plant in the United States or Canada that isn't listed here.

This database is invaluable for anyone interested in gardening with native plants. Want to know whether a plant is native in your area? Just look it up at the PLANTS Database. A majority of the plants listed, including pretty much all the common ones, come with maps showing you where they are naturalized (that is, have escaped from cultivation) and where they are native, along with a wealth of other standardized, well-sourced information.

Take Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) as an example: If I look it up on the database, I will find a map showing that it is "present" (that is, naturalized) in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and Massachusetts. If I click on "view native status", I see that the plant is native in all those states and the one Canadian province as well.

Also available on this page are photos of D. formosa, information about the plant's status (at risk, considered invasive, that sort of thing), and a link to the plant's "Conservation Plant Characteristics" sheet. This standardized form contains about 100 items, including active growth period, bloom period, flower color, propagation requirements, growth requirements, and commercial uses.

But -- let's be honest -- the Conservation Plant Characteristics page is designed for plant wonks. Want something that's more gardener friendly? At the bottom of the top page for D. formosa are links to other websites that are better written and easier to use. For instance, at the Native Plant Database at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center you will find information on how to grow Pacific bleeding heart in a garden and also on its wildlife uses and other benefits in the landscape, all written in gardener-ese.

The information made available through the PLANTS Database is slightly different for each plant. Whereas some plants have no web page of their own, you can at least see how even the most unusual plants are related to other plants in the database. And there is plenty of information for the more common plants. Almost 800 plants come with plain English fact sheets or plant guides that provide much of the information any gardener would want to know.

So for instance, if you look up Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), you can click on a link to get a two-page fact sheet in pdf format with brief information on alternate names, uses (including landscaping and wildlife), conservation uses, appearance, distribution, growing conditions, and even varieties (known as cultivars) that have unusual colors and other features and are grown specifically for the nursery trade. The plant guide for Purple coneflower is four pages long and includes information on propagation. Both the fact sheet and the guide are written in lay language.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is one of nearly 800 plants for which the PLANTS Database provides detailed information in the form of fact sheets and/or plant guides.

I could probably go on forever about this database, but the best way for you to learn about it is to play around with it yourself. Here are just a few more suggestions for ways to use the database:

Want to know what plants are native where you live? Use the State Search function to generate lists of native plants for your state or province. So for instance, when I searched for Nova Scotia, where I live, I generated a list of almost 8,000 plants that are native here.

Interested in finding out whether any member of a specific genus is native in your area? Use State Search to generate a list of plants native to your area, then scroll to the species name you're interested in. So for example, if I generate a list of plants native to Nova Scotia, then scroll to the Dicentras, I find that whereas D. formosa isn't native here, D. cucullaria (aka Dutchman's breeches) is native in this province. There isn't much information about Dutchman's breeches at the USDA website, but that's not a problem: By using the links at the bottom of the page I can easily get all the gardening information I need from sources such as the Kemper Center for Home Gardening and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

I can use the PLANTS database to find out what plants are native in my state or province. Even if the PLANTS database doesn't have much information on a specific plant that I'm interested in, it will probably provide links to websites that do have good information on the plant. The photo above shows Dutchman's breeches (D. cucullaria), which is native where I live even though its close relative Pacific bleeding heart (D. formosa) is not. The copyright-free photo was taken by Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Curious about the status of a plant you're thinking of adding to your garden? Check it out in the database. For instance, if I look up Dicentra spectabilis, the common garden bleeding heart, I will find that it is not native in North America but has naturalized in several states. This tells me that I should check the USDA page to make sure that it's not considered noxious anywhere (it's not) and the Invasive Plants of Canada and Invasive Plants of the Eastern United States websites to make sure that it's not invasive (it's not) before deciding to introduce it into my garden.

Maps at the PLANTS Database site tell me that Common bleeding heart (D. spectabilis) is not native anywhere in North America but has naturalized in a few states. Further research confirmed that although the plant can naturalize, this old-fashioned "cottage garden" plant, which is very popular with hummingbirds, is not considered invasive or noxious anywhere.

All in all, this database is a great resource. If you're shopping for plants this spring, it wouldn't hurt to assign one of your browser tabs to this site.


Anne said...

Ah, if only we had had the internet and Wild Flora 30 some years ago when I was handed that slip by my aunt, not to mention a host of other plants given to me with the words, "easy to grow". This column is a great resource! I'll definitely be checking for the possiblity of a plant being invasive before I put anything else in the ground. Thanks so much.

Benjamin Vogt said...

This was great! Thank you!