The category of "cultivated" is problematic for plants in urban landscapes


I work mainly in urban landscapes, and most of my observations are of plants. I frequently run into the problem of whether to consider a plant “cultivated”, and I’ve become frustrated with the ambiguity of the category, particularly in urban contexts where various forms and degrees of cultivation are at play. Consider the following examples:

  1. A decades-year-old street tree that has probably outlived the people who planted it
  2. A tulip that emerges from a bulb in what is now a vacant lot but what was formerly a garden
  3. A perennial shrub along a bike trail that may or may not have been planted intentionally

All of these might be considered “cultivated”, but clearly not in the same sense that a cabbage or marigold is cultivated. They are, in some sense, ecologically naturalized and self-sustaining, even if they were intentionally planted or have been incorporated into designed greenspaces.

I’d be interested in hearing other folks’ opinions on this problem, and possibly proposals for clearer guidelines or more nuanced categories.


Or a prairie restoration area that is ten years old but was planted only once, or re-seeded at times. Multiple new generations of plants. But it’s helpful ultimately to note that it is not a “remnant” population. Or is it?

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I have had similar problems with this level of ambiguity. Have encountered lots of otherwise native plants that were intentionally placed at some point, but have become self-sustaining, reproduce, and are otherwise indistinguishable from a completely wild population.

I’ve also encountered this problem with wildlife restoration efforts. Restored populations are often much more intensively monitored than wild remnant populations to ensure maximum survival, and evidence of this monitoring has resulted in some of my observations being flagged as “not wild” even when I provide documentation of the restoration effort responsible for the population.


this is a difficult one, and there are certainly many grey areas. But, for the purposes of that field, the policy is to mark anything a human planted as cultivated, and anything that got there on its own as not cultivated.

A tree that you know is planted is always marked as ‘cultivated’ even if it’s 400 years old. This goes for restoration sites too. If a person planted the plant there it is marked as cultivated. If you know it is not, it is marked as wild (or left alone which defaults to wild). if you don’t know… you just have to make your best guess.

Why are planted species always marked as wild? It’s a lot harder for a plant to grow on its own, in competition with other plants and such, than it is when planted. Thus, planted species can be found way beyond their natural range in conditions they could not otherwise survive. People using the data need to be able to tell (as best they can) if something ‘got there on its own’. And in terms of restoration sites, things are sometimes planted that wouldn’t naturally be there, and sometimes they don’t spread on their own. if they are spreading and re-seeding on their own, mark as wild.

This does not mean the data is not valuable if the plant was planted. It just isn’t used in the same way. That is a topic that has been discussed in depth here, including whether or not ‘cultivated’ plants should be eligible for research grade. Right now they are not, but that may change at some point.

These are just what has worked best for the community (albeit not everyone) over the existence of iNat but it’s worth noting you can also track other characteristics like this using fields.


I whole-heartedly agree with your frustration, and it’s something I think about often. Many of the pecan trees in my grandparent’s backyard for example, were planted there for an orchard long ago. Well, it’s a native plant for one, and two, it has baby trees each year that thrive.
It’s problematic in today’s age where we are trying to increase biodiversity and reverse damage from clearing trees to build homes, by planting more trees. And especially if they are native, we shouldn’t be marking all planted trees as cultivated.

Additionally, I iNatted a non-native flower that was growing out and away from a flowerbed of the same flower. This means it is second-generation and naturalized, right?


i guess i’m probably explaining it wrong, but if you mark planted native trees as wild, it makes it impossible to map the actual natural range of the species on iNaturalist, and that matters a lot for conservation for a lot of reasons. It also doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t add the planted native tree.

But yeah your flower sounds like it should be marked as naturalized. But an edge case yes.


a BIG part of the problem, IMO, is that inat buries stuff that get the “casual” flag. when submitting an observation for something that falls into one of those gray areas, I intentionally avoid marking anything as wild (or not) because I want the community ID. there are a number of users that go around flagging stuff as “not wild”, never submitting an identification themselves, and then as soon as the observation is flagged as “not wild” it goes to “Casual” and then nobody EVER submits potential identifications for anything.

honestly, inat needs more nuance here. just because something might have been planted intentionally doesn’t mean the observer doesn’t want an ID confirmation. “casual” observations, IMO, should be limited to stuff without pictures, dates, or locations. period. create a third “quality” level that’s not “research grade” but still allows for things that don’t have a community ID to remain in the “needs ID” pool even though there’s a flag that the observation is cultivated. Allow people to sort stuff that “needs ID” by whether it’s been flagged as cultivated or not so the die hard “pure science” people can ignore them. But once something is flagged as “cultivated”, it still won’t appear in the “Research Grade” pool of observations, and once identified, can be given its own, separate tag for “confirmed identity” that makes the observer happy. I guarantee something like that will get more people flagging their own observations as cultivated or not wild.


I think this something that will always result in gray areas, but a line has to be drawn somewhere so that we can all know what captive/cultivated means on iNaturalist, whether or not we all agree on how it should be defined. We might all have a different idea of what the term means to us, but we should share one definition here, and this one is what’s being used so it’s best to stick to that one. Members of the community can discuss individual cases with the observer and vote in the observation’s Data Quality Assessment area.

There have been plenty of discussions on how to deal with verifiable observations of non-wild organisms, and to have a different category for them rather than lumping them in with “casual”. Definitely something we’re still looking into. However, I think that even if a new category that included non-wild organisms was created, it still won’t be turned on by default in Identify and Explore.

The reason that “casual” observations (including ones of non-wild organisms) observations are not shown by default is not to prevent them from being identified, but has to do with iNat’s (and our community’s) focus on observations of wild organisms. I won’t speak for everyone, but I think most users don’t want to see garden plants, pets, or zoo animals when they’re searching through observations. Anyone who wants to see those and ID them can always use filters to surface them.


I suppose I may be a minority of one, but in the identify filters I check “Casual” so that I will see the casual (captive/cultivated) plants along with the wild plants. I realize that captive/cultivated plants are not the intended target of iNaturalist, and I understand the logic behind a binary wild/not wild toggle especially for users not familiar with the nomenclature of establishment means, let alone knowing whether a particular organism is native, introduced, naturalised, invasive, or managed. I do wish there was an “advanced upload settings” toggle in the iNaturalist app that would expose establishmentMeans as a set of checkboxes (radio buttons?) for those who can make that determination.

I think this is near the crux of the issue. iNaturalist is focused on wild populations and on engaging users with wild nature, not cultivated nature. The users who download the app often just want to know what that plant/bug/creature is - wild or not. My perception is that marking an organism captive/cultivated decreases the likelihood of identification, effectively downgrades the observation to a junior status. Which is why elsewhere I noted that this seems to be a question of whether, going forward, iNaturalist will evolve into a “big tent” that brings a sense of inclusion to those working in cultivated/captive plants.

I know the hope is that Seek will fill that need, but at present Seek does not provide a fallback to suggested identifications when Seek fails to identify a plant, limiting the usefulness and sending a user such as myself back to iNaturalist. Seek also does not meet my instructional use where I watch over what my students are photographically collecting and provide guidance and correction. Seek is perhaps useful for that instructor who adds dozens of students with dozens of observations but has only attempted 53 some identifications.

iNaturalist is not always used in ways that may have been originally intended, the users are also making decisions on how to use the app. I went through identifying a series of coconut trees on Guam from 2015 that were, for the most part, identified only to kingdom plantae as a part of some sort of Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle documentation effort. Their intent was not identification but documentation using observation fields. I did not see any that were marked cultivated/captive, though some were fairly clearly in the cultivated category. For those users, identification and wild/not wild was simply irrelevant and the couple users I checked had zero identifications of their one and only species: Cocos nucifera.

That sounds very useful to those of us who often work in a mix of wild and captive/cultivated plants, Ethnobotany always involves a mix of both, with both of equal value and importance. Thanks!


Charlie the actual native range of a species can not be mapped with iNaturalist for the following reasons: Planted natives are filtered out of the maps, while spontaneous regeneration of exotics is not filtered out. This planet is more and more becoming a urban landscape. and under these conditions, planted natives might make much better natural range maps, than maps that distinguish between cultivated and wild. I still think that marking species as exotic for a certain area is much more important, than the cultivated-spontaneous distinction. And i wonder why the former is so complicated, while the later so easy.


I’m aware of those issues, but still, the system as it stands works much better for ecological inventory as I understand it than lumping them all together. However there is another solution that might be even better and meet the needs of more people: keep planted individuals on the map but either make it so you can turn them on and off or else give them a different map symbol so they can be discerned.

For what it’s worth I agree with others that planted plants shouldn’t be disqualified from “research grade”


@ dsponsler
Naturalization means that a species has managed to escape from cultivation/captivity and subsequently to form a stable (self-sustaining) natural population. Neither more, nor less. And this should be the definition used on iNaturalist.

It is true that in some cases it is difficult to be sure if a plant is there because someone has put it there or because it has grown from a seed that accidentally came there. Anyway, in most cases of plants found in urban areas, especially if they are ornamental and rather old, it is likely that they have been planted on purpose by someone. The same for a wood that is the result of a reforestation. It is nothing but a plantation until it produces an offspring.


My issue isn’t with these things. My issue is with the organisms that fall into the gray areas. Maybe I’m not sure about the organism’s status and some high-and-mighty individual thinks they do, and then marks the organism as captive/cultivated without submitting an identification, banishing the observation into the pits of obscurity. Not one observation of mine that’s wound up as being “casual” has EVER had anyone from the community supply an ID confirmation, or alternate suggestion. I have lately started calling people out for this (marking as captive/cultivated without supplying the observer with any ID).

I’ll be straight up that this attitude is causing me to do less and less with inaturalist. I’m being vocal about it as a last ditch effort to get inaturalist to be more inclusive. As it stands, I think this is the biggest impediment to that, and it’s easy for someone who’s not a specialist to feel that if their observation they want feedback on gets flagged as captive/cultivated, and demoted to Casual status, that they have somehow been penalized.


I don’t know why the default isn’t to see everything, and users then have a preferences option to just present ‘wild’ observations if that user doesn’t want to bother with non-wild. iNat is about getting people involved, and having their first tentative observations ignored (which is what flagging as non-wild does) doesn’t seem to fit that mission.


well, i think the bigger problem here is that you aren’t notified when someone makes that tag. If that were the case, you could just vote against it and restore the observation unless two people did it. I am hoping the reforms in how notifications work that are planned fix that. But… people should not be flagging as not wild if they are just making wild guesses.

Can you offer an example of an observation where someone has done this? Have people explained themselves when you ask them? I have looked at which of your observations are flagged as captive and there are just a bunch of carnivorous plants that look cultivated and a bunch of bison in a big paddock or something. I agree bison are confusing in general with the whole reintroduction thing but to say the least it’s a very small percentage of your observations that are being marked as captive. And honestly, with those bison, i’d go with captive too based on what i am seeing there. And it’s not like you need more IDs to know they are bison, right?

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Nate, I’m familiar with and sympathetic to the frustrations you’re describing and had my own series of contentious conversations with a curator who had made it their mission to mark really all nonnative tree obs as captive/cultivated if there was even a fraction of a doubt. I had been in the habit of seeking out spontaneous reproduction of nonnative species in wild habitats, and when these were incorrectly marked “captive” it did lead to some friction as that individual was quite resistant to considering contradictory evidence. So I get it, I really do.

That said, the nature of a site like this is that it isn’t a place for letting our emotions get too tied up with our content. Feeling like a “casual” grade designation is a punishment has a relatable emotional basis, but at the end of the day comes from experiencing the impersonal nature of this site’s design (peer-review lite, basically) and taking it personally.

I do wish the existing binary didn’t necessarily “disappear” captive/cultivated obs from the overall pool to the degree that it does. The thing that always occurs to me is old planted trees in locations that have since “gone back” to the wild and are no longer under anyone’s active or future management. Sometimes those trees are providing food and habitat to wildlife, determining shade regime and vegetation structure, feeding the soil fungi etc- so even if they’re not reproducing and will not persist beyond their own lifespan, they’re a consequential participant in the local site ecology. They’re not relevant to the questions about geographic distribution Charlie and others are interested in, but they are relevant to examining the ecology of individual sites at a particular moment in time.

That sort of interest might be served by a finer gradation of “captive/cultivated” vs. “escaped” vs. “naturalized/invasive/introduced” vs “wild.” The trees I describe would fall into “escaped” as I envision it- no longer subject to human management, quite possibly an active participant in a wild site ecology, but also not truly naturalized. This gradation would have been very applicable to a lot of the urban sites I explored.



I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always felt that an untended planted tree has, at least in some way, become wild again. Even if it is not part of a self-sustaining population, it is influencing the local ecology, perhaps significantly. One example would be planted urban trees that are native but uncommon where they are planted, and are supporting a host of insect diversity that relies on them. Surely it isn’t right to call the tree “cultivated” and the insect “wild”?

I also agree with others that perhaps a new way of displaying observations of planted specimens would be beneficial, perhaps a new search filter in addition to “Captive / cultivated”? I don’t think it is right that an observation of a planted tree that could be significantly influencing its environment should be marked as casual and prevented from becoming research grade.


I guess what’s important in any changes that are made to how observations like these are marked and classified is that a distinction for individuals occurring spontaneously without direct human involvement needs to be maintained in a way that is useful for search filters etc. so that it doesn’t interfere with the use of iNaturalist data to study species distributions.

Admittedly adding extra categories for the DQA could also be confusing for less experienced users and may see accidental abuse.

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I agree with @mreith about the planet becoming more and more of an urban landscape. The Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina was originally dominated by longleaf pine but was timbered and had loblolly pine planted in its place. Now there are efforts to reestablish the longleaf pine. All the observations of loblolly and longleaf pine in that area certainly wouldn’t need to be marked as "cultivated,” but how would you determine between which of those were planted and which were their descendants?

This is one significant incidence that I am aware of but I’m sure there are numerous other occasions where humans have significantly altered habitats, affecting the natural range of species. So, I think, if a plant is able to exist on its own in an environment, without any human assistance, e.g. water, temperature control, pest/disease control and reproduce on its own, it is effectively “wild/naturalized”; you won’t be able to distinguish which was the original planted individual and which originated from it.

Additionally, marking plants as “naturalized,” rather than “cultivated” then also provides a “documented” range for that plant. This, I think, has more significance for its potential impacts to habitat. As an example, Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is not “native” to South Carolina but is beginning to be planted frequently as food source, particularly for monarch butterflies. While this seems like a good thing, because it blooms for a longer period than the other milkweeds that have historically been found here, it is causing the monarch not to migrate, which is not a good thing. Marking it a “cultivated” minimizes, what is in essence, a range expansion and an important thing to be able to track. And, yes, I understand that I could search for “casual” occurrences of this particular species, but it points to the importance of documenting where species are now and not limiting it to where they have been.


Fascinating discussion. I teach undergrads environmental philosophy, and of course one of the “meta” issues that permeates that topic is defining “Nature” and “natural.” This definitional issue can end up being abstract in a class discussion, but iNat really lays this issue bare as good questions like the original poster’s force us to actually make a decision in terms of iNat’s platform/policy.

In many peoples’ view, humans are part of “Nature,” and yet–paradoxically–“Nature” is often understood/defined (by Western cultures anyway) as a place lacking substantial human intervention/impact. But what is “substantial” and what does it mean in terms of various types of human interventions and activities? One thing we’re likely discovering–with a platform like iNat collecting users from many different areas (geographical and intellectual!)–is that definitions/understandings of “Nature” and “natural” may be very different…

While this isn’t providing specific guidance on the poster’s original question, I do think it’s worth stepping back and recognizing this challenge has far more to do with underlying and unsettled definitional issues well outside of iNat. But maybe iNat can help move the needle a bit in terms of greater consensus on some of these definitions?