Roots and Shoots: Digging Up Plants Online

Bloodroot is one of the earliest flowers to bloom in the forest and the flowers emerge before it is fully leafed out.

Bloodroot is one of the earliest flowers to bloom in the forest and the flowers emerge before it is fully leafed out. (Photos via Bplant.org)

Online searches for information about plants can lead to a diverse array of bloggers, garden writers, research papers, magazines, cooperative extensions and nonprofits, such as arboretums and botanical gardens. 

Here are a few that have been enormously interesting and useful to me. 

Cornell Botanic Gardens
cornellbotanicgardens.org/learn/explore-our-plants

This database has information gleaned from the study of 10,000 plants maintained on the grounds of the university in Ithaca, making it particularly relevant for New York gardeners. In addition to the details about a plant’s characteristics, its citations include differences noted because of climate change. For example, the bloodroot on campus bloomed an average of 11.3 days earlier between 1986 and 2015. 

The listings also include details about the value of the plant to wildlife. Using bloodroot again, I learned it is a larval host for the southern armyworm and tufted apple bud moth, as well as a pollen source for mining bees and sweat bees when few other flowers are blooming early in the spring. 

Native American Ethnobotany
naeb.brit.org

Indigenous peoples discovered the medicinal and practical uses for native plants and trees; this searchable database began in 1977 on index cards and included nearly 5,000 items as part of an effort to preserve their collective knowledge. After being published as a book of the same name in 1989, the database continued to be updated and has nearly 45,000 listings. 

There are several ways to search. A tribal search lists nearly 300 U.S. tribes with the flora they used and their purposes. There are sources listed for further study and links to the U.S. Department of Agriculture database that has specific plant information. Although I found some non-working links, it’s a huge cache that gives a more nuanced view of the natural world and the possibility of our connections to it. 

Bloodroot leaves are distinctive and will usually disappear in mid-summer as the plant goes dormant.

Bloodroot leaves are distinctive and will usually disappear in mid-summer as the plant goes dormant.

For instance, an entry for bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) brought up 133 uses by 20 tribes that included medicinal, ceremonial and clothing dye uses. It seems to have been useful for treatments of everything, from stomach to heart and respiratory issues.

Bplant.org
This is a volunteer-run site that focuses on ecology and plants by eco-region. A search using my home address in Philipstown brought up these results: 

North America
Northern Forests
->Atlantic Highlands
->Northeastern Highlands
->Glaciated Reading Prong/Hudson Highlands

From there, I could read detailed information about any of those headings down to the specific glacial history that shaped the area and the geological foundation. 

Key species listed are forests of sugar maple, northern red oak, American beech, white oak, chestnut oak, sweet birch and shagbark hickory, among others. The terrain and bordering areas are also described. 

The plant lists for the “Glaciated Reading Prong/Hudson Highlands” haven’t been finished but a broader list for the Northeastern Highlands lists more than 1,517 plants and trees. The listing for bloodroot has 20 paragraphs of content about its habitat, life cycle and wildlife value, and maps with distribution, links to other content and photos of its foliage and flowers. 

For anyone who wants to dig deep into eco-region planting, this site is a great place to start for native plants. 

The Native Plant Center
sunywcc.edu/about/npc/plants

Located on the campus of SUNY Westchester Community College, this affiliate of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas was founded in 1998 and hosts classes, a plant sale, gardens and plant lists for native plants to grow in our area,  organized by such conditions as sun and shade, as well as information about deer-resistant plants and invasive species. 

It links to the LBJ Center (wildflower.org), another online database with more than 7,000 species listed. I appreciate that in this database I can search for plants via queries by state, habit, light needs, height, bloom time, color and many more criteria.

For example, a search for New York perennials that grow in dry shade conditions, bloom in the fall and grow to be 3 to 6 feet tall revealed … nothing. But when I dropped the height requirement and bloom time, I got four plants and I was familiar with only one of them, common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). Now I have a new plant list to use during forest walks.

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