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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Karen Hugg

Part One: Research

When it comes to researching plants there's really no substitute for a thick, respectable encyclopedia, but one perk of the modern world is the vast amount of data available on the Internet. It's a handy choice when one lacks the time or tangible resources to answer a particular question. What's most advantageous about researching online, though, is the web's timeliness. In 2003, the Chicago Botanic Garden created a buzz when it introduced the first orange Echinacea called 'Art's Pride'. When the plant first hit the market, information about it was nonexistent in books and scant in magazines. By plugging the name into a search engine, one could find at least a description and a few anecdotal experiences about growing the flower. So in its democratic free-for-all way, the web gives us what more traditional sources can't. But with freedom comes lack of expertise and plenty of misinformation. Thankfully, with the addition of more relevant search engines like Google, it's easy to land on the most pertinent sites. Still, you can't always tell from whom your advice comes. So following are a handful of general, trustworthy sites with plant databases recommended for dependable information and ease of use.

Oregon State University Landscape Plants, http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ldplants/

As a designer, I'm often educating clients about the glories of certain plants. So the first site I send them to for additional knowledge is the Oregon State University plant database. The University's horticulture department is one of the most respected on the West coast and their database of 900 woody and 75 herbaceous plants offers precise information and easy navigation. The text is botanical but not dense and the photos are outstanding. Each entry is graced with anywhere from 5 to 15 photos, showing not only the mature form but also branches, flowers, fruit, etc. So if you're unclear as to whether the Stewartia you have is a S. monadelpha or S. pseudocamellia, you can hit the "leaves and flowers, comparison" link that displays a photo of the two branches in bloom, side by side, against a black backdrop. Unfortunately in search results, the OSU database usually appears too far down.

Great Plant Picks, http://www.greatplantpicks.org/

The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden awards plants the Great Plant Picks notation to help educate consumers about quality, workhorse plants for the Northwest landscape. Compiled every year by a panel of regional experts, the program has its own website that's an outstanding resource. With more informal writing than OSU, plant descriptions usually include why a plant is worth growing and design combinations. While the layout is plain and there's usually only one photo per entry, the pictures capture the essence or best quality of the plant. There's a limited amount of plants here but one can scroll through all the picks in one list, which now after five years is sizeable. The site's one drawback is plant profiles are in PDF files, which means one needs Adobe's Acrobat Reader to view them. Though the site does include a link to download the program, the PDFs limit navigation and searching. Still the site is a superb place to start for those looking to find lovely, low-maintenance plants for the Northwest garden. 

UConn Plant Database, http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/

Similar to the OSU catalog is the University of Connecticut's plant database. Information here, while accurate and clear, covers woody plants only and is tailored a bit to the New England area. The site's most useful attribute is its voice clip feature, which pronounces Latin botanical names aloud. That and its powerful search engine sets it apart from OSU's site. The "Search for Plants" element allows users to search by characteristics. So through dropdown menus, one can choose the terms "small shrub (to 4' tall)," "evergreen" and "variegated" for a substantial list of suggestions. The grand drawback to the UConn site is its layout. The text and thumbnails sit in a narrow table on the left while the right table is reserved for enlarged pictures. But this layout squeezes the text into too-slim an area, making it difficult to see the various section titles at a glance.  

Gardening Section of BBC.co.uk, http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/

The BBC gardening site is a multi-media circus with short videos, interactive design programs, radio clips, snazzy IPIX pictures, crisp photos, and more. In other words there's a truckload to keep the hortiholic interested. While the "Techniques," "Design" and "Ask the Experts" areas are helpful, I usually go straight for the "Plants" link where tightly written, well laid-out, user friendly profiles of plants live. There's also in-depth information on whole genera of plants. Click on "Fuchsias" and you'll find advice about recommended varieties, hardy cultivars, container choices, growing tips and problem solvers. Within the "Plants" section, the "Plant Finder" link sends one to an easy-to-use plant database searchable by name or characteristic in "Advanced Search." Not only can you choose "variegation" as a characteristic, but you can choose between "silver" and "golden." And when the results come up, so do fine thumbnails from the database.

Dave's Garden, http://davesgarden.com/

One site often topping search results is Dave's Garden. Launched by Dave Whitinger in August, 2000, Dave's Garden is a community website featuring plant and retailer databases, bulletin boards, and more. There's an enormous amount of advice here, mostly anecdotal. In the "Garden Talk" section, almost 200,000 registered users can trade growing tips and resources. The "Plant Files" database is less impressive with roughly 118,000 entries, not all complete with data and unfortunately littered with ads, but the plant descriptions are supposedly reviewed by staff. Navigation can be confusing as well and could use a design overhaul. The most redeeming quality is the "Gardenwatchdog" section, a database with which gardeners can research mail-order companies. If you're nervous about ordering from a little-known specialty nursery, you can find feedback here from customers on its products and service. "Gardenwatchdog" is cross-referenced with the "Plant Scout" feature, allowing you to find a source for whatever plant you may covet. If you've recently become intoxicated with rare African bulbs, you'll find a reliable U.S. dealer for them here.

The next set of sites are ones who sometimes appear in search results but whose databases are either difficult to use or have information that's unreliable.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, http://plants.usda.gov/

One would think the U.S. government would be one of the better places to find plant information, but not for the residential gardener. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has put together a dense, difficult to use site geared toward botanists, biologists, and others in the field. The text is highly scientific and while complete and accurate, it's not easy for home gardeners to wade through. Very few photos.

Royal Horticultural Society, http://www.rhs.org.uk/index.asp

The Royal Horticultural Society's website is designed for use by members, but its "Plant Selector" database is available to anyone. The descriptions are dependable and the layout is decent but sadly the database only returns full results for members, which means if one searches for the genus Abelia, they'll find only one brief entry of the less common A. schumannii. Occasionally, I'll see the RHS cited in magazines as a good resource, but the OSU and UConn databases are much more complete.

GardenWeb's Hortiplex, http://hortiplex.gardenweb.com/plants/

Hortiplex often appears in search results (perhaps because they've paid to be) but unfortunately the entries in its plant database are composed entirely of user remarks. Therefore, profiles are often incomplete and unreliable. Easy navigation is also lacking here and the site is riddled with ads. One must drill down through several links to find basic growing information.

In general, you might think that universities and non-profit organizations would offer the most faithful, extensive information, but with the World Wide Web that's not always the case. Hopefully this article has directed readers to a few of the more responsible, well-made sites. Happy surfing!

Before life as a professional gardener, Karen Hugg worked as an editor at Amazon.com. She owns Red Madrona Gardens. In our next issue, she'll cover gardening retail websites.

Published in 2005

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