Cultivated, Wild, Escaped, Unsure?

What do you put if you aren’t sure if a plant is wild? For example, I’ve found plants that might have been cultivated at some point but they might have been abandoned. On public land, i see some specimens that may or may not be cared for. Should I check cultivated?


Not Wild on iNat does not mean ‘cared for’ despite the fact that they call it Cultivated.

If you think it was planted by someone = Not Wild
If it is a seedling from the original plant = Wild


Also see the peculiar definitions at


A recently submitted Ginkgo biloba observation is interesting in this regard. When observed, the photographed specimen was a seed beginning to sprout. I have often seen such seeds sprouting to produce naturalized seedlings under and near cultivated female Ginkgo biloba trees in botanical gardens and arboreta. The following criterion, which is listed under the Wild section of the page referenced above in post 3 of the current discussion, might apply to these cases:

  • garden plant that is reproducing on its own and spreading outside of the intended gardening area

In some cases it can be rather hard to be sure.

They are still cultivated or, in other words, they did not become wild because they have been abandoned.

Sometimes it is a matter of probability. One should ask if there is a certain probability if such species can grow there just for natural means (that means: no one has deliberately planted it there).
It may depends also on other factors:

  • Is that species already been found in that area as an escapee?
  • Does this species usually tend to become wild in that area?
  • Does this species grow in a group of plants almost all of the same age?
  • Does this species grow in a group of plants placed in a regular array?
  • Is an offspring visible nearby?

If you are still unsure, consider the possibility to ask a local expert.


This is the aspect that will occasionally make decisions on “wild” or “not wild” difficult. Here are a couple of examples that illustrate the issue I’ve faced on public lands:

a. At the national wildlife refuge where I worked for many years, we would occasionally see obviously non-native species still present (sometimes declining, sometimes thriving) at old abandoned homesites and homesteads. The original plantings might have dated from 20 to 100 years ago, but if they are suspected of being the original plantings, or at least rootstock which persists, it’s still “cultivated”. If, however, the species is spreading of its own accord away from the homesite, then those subsequent generations of plants would be considered “wild” in iNat’s framework. That’s the easy part. Keeping mind that these occurrences were all on previously private lands, there were a few instances where there was no obvious local evidence of previous human occupancy. In such cases, it becomes a guessing game of how the species got to a particular spot and if there is some plausible (likely or unlikely) natural method of dispersal which would have resulted in the plant’s occurrence.

b. I recently documented this non-native species of oak (Mexican White Oak) in a public greenbelt in suburban Austin:
The species has been widely planted in nearby suburban residential yards. While I think it is most likely that this seedling arrived as an acorn planted by one of the neighborhood squirrels (e.g. “wild”), there is a finite but unmeasurable probability that someone in the neighborhood just like the species in their yard and thought they’d plant one (or more) in the adjacent greenbelt. So, as @blue_celery suggests, this becomes an exercise of guessing which scenario is more likely.


As someone who deals with border cases a lot, here are my steps.

First, is that species known to be wild, naturalized or otherwise escape? Secondly, do the circumstances rule out planting to your best knowledge?

A good majority of these cases pass these two rules right away. It is usually fairly clear whether a species can not just survive but actively propagate in the given climate it is located in. But if they don’t pass these rules, you start to enter the grey area.

The grey area is primarily any measure of “waif”, which is an example of any “rogue” species that cannot normally grow or occur in that area. They are often non-native, but they could even be native to the area (and either extirpated, not happy with the local conditions at this one exact spot, or part of a restoration site). Often times these are one-offs and happenstance, and those are the most controversial ones. But sometimes they’ll populate well to people’s surprise and those are absolutely fair game. There are some cases where it just isn’t possible to tell without knowing specifically if someone planted it, especially in tropical areas where everything blends in.

Generally, there isn’t a huge consequence to some of these ending up wild when they might not. But marking it captive shuts it down from attention and an audience, so if unsure it is probably best to get other opinions first.


The much-(dis)cussed American Sweetgum tree in a yard in Laguna Beach, Orange Co., CA, illustrates the many nuances of these decisions.


Thank you!

1 Like

Thanks for breaking down the decision process! As a non-expert, I find it very helpful.

My conundrum yesterday was that I stumbled upon what seemed to be old greenhouses on a university campus. There were many interesting plants, and some had those little placards so that visitors could read the plant name. Sounds cultivated, but at least 90% of the placards were rotting and blank. It looked like the school might have had a horticulture department that went defunct. There were broken trellises and fences and sinks and junk just laying around. Even some old warning signs about pesticides. The greenhouses themselves were locked up with rusty chains and looked abandoned.

On the other hand, there were a couple of small parcels of land that looked like they were being tended. And all around, there were loads of nonnative plants growing, but I just couldn’t tell if they were escaped.


I would call those Not Wild.
And make a copypasta for the background you have given us here - to use as a note on each obs.

Ideally you want to pre-empt unnecessary argument about - is it - or not - Wild. Identifiers can only work with what you give us. The information in the photos, and the accompanying story.


The wall of text is not necessary, or even off-putting. Still pre-emptive info is key here.
A one-liner like “Growing in disused greenhouse area, possibly cultivated at some point” under the ID, check “Cultivated”… done.

1 Like

I was going to write
(brief) copypasta
but I thought we could take that as read?

1 Like

Generally, if something has been planted, it never becomes “non-planted”. In many practical applications these kinds of plants can be labelled “persisting from cultivation”, which often applies to former gardens that degraded or old farm sites that have since been decommissioned. However, some of those plants (trees especially) can remain once they have been nurtured enough in younger stages by horticulture.

The meaning of the status cultivated is not whether it is cultivated now, but whether the origin of the organism being there is the result of cultivation or planting.


I agree, @silversea_starsong . However . . . . The bamboos we’re working with now spread by rhizomes. They’re planted at a location but then wander under fences, across property lines, into road right-of-ways where they are mowed each year. Only a minority of the stands are absolutely certainly “wild” in the sense that they started where they are because they were spread by floods or (accidentally) by earth-moving equipment, or dumped with yard waste. However, a lot of them got where the culms currently are by vegetative reproduction. It’s not simple to classify these “quasi-wild” bamboos as wild or cultivated.


Rhizomes and clones are where things get the most complicated of all!


That is a great example of how difficult it can be to qualify.


When briefly looking through the forum I see that the question has been asked (and answered) a lot of times… but (partly) since there are so many grey areas it is being raised again and again… But I think it is a good sign- seing that Inaturalist has a lot of active discussions going on- and people are curious how to do things best.

To highlight thta it can be difficult to answer it, here also something, that maybe could be discussed here:

to keep it a bit in order, they are all originally cultivated grasses, that might or might have escaped their cultivation:

  • Maybe some of you have an idea, what this on is – cultivated or wild (I marked it in a conservative manner as cultivated, but I think it leave a bit of room for discussion) - and Due to very wet weather conditions during harvesting season, the wheat started germinating on the field again last year in some regions – certainly not something that the farmer would want to, one could possibly say that these young plants do not grow in the “care” of someone - But the again would not last too long, if the field was not cultivated after (but that happens with all annual plants on a cultivated field, they disappear if there is no cultivation anymore).

  • But then, if the wheat from the year before cultivated or wild - it is also not there intentionally!

  • And what about the wheat in a grassland, maybe because the tractor that was used to cut the grass rolled through a field before?

  • Or the wheat on the side of the road, maybe it fell down after harvesting- (in my opinion this is a bit more clearly wild, although it will certainly disappear there soon, but I guess that is also the case with many garden escapists, some last outside of gardens very well some until the next drought or next much colder winter) -

What do you think?

  • Cultivated? like any annual plant intentionally brought to a garden, then regrowing from seeds in the intended area of the garden every year - as long as it does not escape beyond the intended limits (which are obvious in the case of a field).
  • Gray area? could be considered regrowth of the (imperfectly-eradicated) previous batch of cultivated plants that were intentionally brought there.
  • Wild/escaped (dispersal by anthropochory) - unlikely that someone intended for it to grow at this location.
  • same as above
1 Like

I would treat your examples 2-4 as wild. You could justify calling seeds germinating in the head as wild, but I personally would recommend against it.

1 Like