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
Oregon State University Landscape Plants,
As a designer, I'm often educating clients about
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/
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.
Plant Database, http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/
Similar to the OSU catalog is the
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,
The BBC gardening site is a multi-media circus with
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/
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
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service,
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,
The Royal Horticultural Society's website is designed
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.
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
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
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.