Do I misunderstand the wild–cultivated distinction?

I started posting observations to iNaturalist yesterday, including an observation of a Liquidambar tree growing in a backyard:

The tree grew where it was on its own, presumably from a seed dropped by the neighbor’s tree that is just on the other side of the fence in the picture.

I initially was unsure whether this counted as “wild” or “cultivated”, but I thought it counted as “wild”, so I uploaded it as “wild”, but it quickly got reclassified as “cultivated”.

I re-read the guidelines and saw that a “tree planted 1, 10, or 100 years ago by humans” counts as “cultivated”, whereas the following count as “wild”:

  • “weed or other unintended plant growing in a garden”;
  • “garden plant that is reproducing on its own and spreading outside of the intended gardening area”;
  • “living organisms dispersed by the wind, water, and other forces apart from humans”.

The tree that was the subject of the observation

  • was not planted any number of years ago by humans and
  • grew without human intent (which I assumed is what “unintended” means) in (what later became) a garden,
    • as a result of a garden plant (the neighbor’s tree) reproducing on its own and spreading outside of the intended gardening area, and
    • as a result of living organisms (the neighbor’s tree’s seeds) being dispersed by the wind.

Re-reading the guidelines, I was pretty sure it counted as “wild”, so I unmarked it as “cultivated”. It was very quickly re-marked as “cultivated”, and I did not wish to contest that further.

Is the observation correctly marked as “cultivated”? Did I misunderstand the guidelines? If so, how should I understand them differently?

Tentatively, I suspect the answer is that the guidelines don’t mention that, to protect the purity of the research data, it’s preferred that questionable observations be misclassified as “cultivated” than misclassified as “wild”, and thus it’s proper that people marking observations as “cultivated” err on the side of doing so over-eagerly?

Finally, I’d like to apologize for taking up the community’s time with the matter of my questionable observation, which I don’t suppose is really very useful.

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Hi Jack and welcome! It’s a common question with a lot of confusing grey area, so don’t feel bad at all about asking.

If you’re certain the tree grew on its own and wasn’t intentionally planted, yes marking it as “wild” is appropriate.

It looks like this situation kicked in for your observation:

The system will vote that the observation is not wild/naturalized if there are at least 10 other observations of a genus or lower in the smallest county-, state-, or country-equivalent place that contains this observation and 80% or more of those observations have been marked as not wild/naturalized.


To counter the iNat system’s automatic vote, at the bottom of the observation in the Data Quality Assessment section, you can vote with your own thumbs up next to “Organism is wild”.


To add, it also depends on which kind of garden it is, if you do something directly for that tree, it’s not wild anymore, but if don’t, it’s still wild.


Oh, I do water it occasionally, although when it first grew no humans were living on the property. I’ll mark it as cultivated after all, then.

That is not true. There is nothing about that in the official iNat definition of captive. It it grew there by itself, it’s wild, regardless of what people may or may not do to it.


I agree that it is not true. I’d also add that it would be an entirely impractical standard. If any human does anything directly for a wild organism it becomes not wild? This would mean every wild bird fed by humans is not wild. Every sea turtle nestling intentionally protected from vehicle traffic is not wild. Etc. Even worse, because it is rarely possible to say with confidence that no one did anything to help any wild organism, we’d almost never be able to mark anything wild with confidence. The wild-cultivated distinction is hard enough without adding such a standard.


This is true and was discussed many times. “humans intended it to be then and there” is directly what caring for plants means.
@dlevitis no, what a reach, plants have totally different standarts, human help makes them more likely to survive, e.g. killing plants around.

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There is a very famous Saguaro on iNat found in Joshua Tree growing far outside its normal range There are now many observations and it’s becoming a pilgrimage destination. But is it wild? There is a lot of debate. Many people suspect that someone planted out their houseplant when they had to move. Others argue that a seed was left by a migrating bird. The bird hypothesis is not well supported though because the nurse plant does not seem substantial enough to serve as a perch. This argument bears on whether the plant should be designated wild or cultivated, and most likely we’ll never know. But it’s one of those fun dilemmas that could be solved by the rule @bouteloua mentioned, but so far hasn’t kicked in yet.

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@jack-odanaka Welcome to the forum, and (to me) the never ending debate over wild vs cultivated plants. With respect to my friend @marina_gorbunova I would consider the tree wild, even if you have watered it. I feed birds (and unintentionally some mammals), but they are all wild. I have also reared some insects and then released them. However, I am not a plant person, so take whatever I say about this specific issue with a grain of salt! I’m also somewhat Laissez-faire (not Economically) when it comes to this stuff, so again, grain of salt.

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Just watering imo is okay, I only mentioned it to find out if something is being done to the tree, but again, I don’t get why people keep comparing animals to plants, plants can’t move and thus iNat can’t treat them the same way.

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No offence intended. To me, the distinction between plants and animals is less clear cut. If I stick a tree in the ground, it is cultivated. Same if I plant seeds. I guess the difference is ‘provenance’ - many plants are live for centuries, so if I see an old tree I don’t always know how it got there. But again, I have a relaxed outlook about this stuff, so ‘grain of salt’!!

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As I understand it, if you don’t know if it was planted, it’s ok to leave it as wild, though my own observations of such old&non-native trees I mark as cultivated if I observe them at all, it’s always easier to find a small one, if there’s none, it’s even more likely tree was planted.


Sounds like it’s wild, at least as far as you know. In my area they don’t come up from seed often, but they have come up in some of my pots. Keep marking it wild.


I’ve seen some argue that any plant seen by a human and not pulled out of the ground is now cultivated since a human now intends for it to be there. I don’t think that’s the intention of the field.

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Talk about what we say here, not in some other places, please.


:face_with_hand_over_mouth:oh, hevins above!

that’s ~so~ arrogant! Thank you for a good a laugh :laughing::joy:


I’m not going to pretend I know the official iNat stance on this tending/caring for an (initially-planted but since spread outside garden) wild plant debate, because I don’t. But, perhaps the question is: would it have survived if the human had done nothing at all? Likely hard to gauge, I know. But if it’s being watered on occasion, however is capable of surviving in that type of soil at the natural rainfall level, then no biggie — sounds still wild. But if, for a random example, a human is out there with plastic before every frost, well then that doesn’t sound wild to me. So maybe you’re both right, in a way?

On a different note, welcome Jack! :grinning: I’m wondering if you added the beginning of your note to the observation before or after it got marked as cultivated. I’m asking because it makes me think of a user that lives near a wildlife facility, and always makes certain to include a note (before uploading) indicating that an escapee has shown up on their property; that way, the observation doesn’t get marked as captive. Something like WILD BECAUSE: followed by explanation. Very helpful to IDers.


On further consideration, I can see reasons both for and against marking the tree as wild, so I’m retracting my DQA vote and leaving the question to others’ DQA consensus (which currently is in favor of “wild” by 6 to 1, not counting the automatic vote).

Before I was watering it, the tree was growing with no humans living on the property and presumably no humans watering it, so I don’t think my watering is necessary to its survival, although

  1. the tree may grow more because I water it and
  2. the tree may be depending on moisture migrating through the soil from neighbors’ gardens.

Thank you for the welcomes. I can’t now remember, and I have edited that note since first posting it, but I believe I the first sentence “The Liquidambar sapling in the foreground grew from a seed dropped by the neighbor’s mature Liquidambar just behind the fence and was not put where it is by human intent.”, or something very similar, was present initially.


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