Uploading garden plants as wild: The potential for false naturalization data to spread

Rather false data on a planted/escaped population as wild, than false data on a wild/escaped species as planted.
Marking as planted has a second problem, which is why I tend not to mark my planted observations until it is Research Grade. And that is that it goes out of the ID stream and tends to languish either as incompletely identified, or as unverified.
Which for a species in the early stages of invasion can be an issue. The iNat default of marking an observation as “planted” is a nuisance, as one is not alerted to this fact: it is entirely surreptitious. At the very least a comment should be posted to the effect that the observation has been marked as planted - allowing the observer to be aware of the fact and switch it off if necessary.

In southern Africa we have lots of invasives, and I have to update the alien list several times a week with species recorded as newly wild (https://www.inaturalist.org/check_lists/664678-Southern-Africa-Check-List?q=&view=photo&observed=any&establishment_means=introduced&occurrence_status=any&rank=all&commit=Filter). This shows up as the icons on the observations, and the species summaries.
We also have projects, that any user with more than 100 observations is invited to join, so that they automatically displays on their alien observations:
And we also have the project
for new species and new populations.

From the education and information viewpoint, we also have an issue in that most people regard aliens as a national issue, whereas in the Cape Flora, we have invasives and hybridizing aliens arising from adjacent centres of endemism, which may be a mere 40km away, but which contain different floras, and sister species. Whereas it is “relatively” easy to restrict movement of aliens into a country, and to get people to appreciate the problems and help control them, it is nigh impossible when the alien invasives can occur naturally within a magisterial district literally “over the hill”.

Any scientist using any data they did not collect, without carefully scrutinizing and checking it is going to be severely embarrassed, either during review or after publication. No aspiring scientist stupid enough to take data at face value once, will ever repeat their mistake.
The difficulty I find is getting researchers to annotate the data on iNaturalist, rather than only in their own private or institutional databases. I feel researchers should put value back into the data they extract, rather than merely use it.


Hello, it’s not entirely clear to me what Your goal actually is.
For example, the rules clearly state that if something spreads itself, whether through seeds or otherwise, then it’s wild.

There is nothing to discuss, it only remains to change the rule…

For example; a long time ago I received and planted two Primula elatior from a friend in his forest. Over the years they have multiplied and are therefore naturally wild, that’s how it works with any species that spreads, however
:-) Hans

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From the iNat example of wild: “garden plant that is reproducing on its own and spreading outside of the intended gardening area”.

If we don’t consider intended gardening area, many ornamental ground covers (including lawn grass) could be labeled “wild”.

It think there is ambiguity in defining “intended” area, but some amount of spread and reseeding is still consistent with cultivation.

I guess how one navigates that gray area could depend upon the potential value of the label. I think if we start using wild for every plant that reseeds or spreads within a garden, we have potentially diminished its value.


Well, I can understand Your idea very well and I’m here with You, it is clear here that there are different ways of looking at things, depending on the individual interpretation, which only encourages me that the rules are not clear here and the logical approach would be to simply adapt the rules accordingly… . :-)

Gardening styles are also evolving to resemble wild situations. Many gardeners are planting native plants, which over time become indistinguishable from wild plants. Many gardeners are planting self-seeding plants, intentionally introducing species to their gardens that are known to be capable of sustaining a population over time. The term “naturalizing” is used to suggest planting in a way that looks natural, and in a lot of cases, is intended to become natural and increasingly wild over time, as the plant communities establish and reproduce, either vegetatively or by seed.

There are whole gardening movements based on this, even dating back a century or more. “Wild gardening” introduced a new philosophy of gardening that embraced plants that could thrive with little or no direct care. More recently, a gardening style known as “naturalistic” embraces self-sustaining populations of perennials, many of which may be native plants, looking like a native prairie.

The permaculture movement embraces vigorous and self-sustaining populations of plants from annuals and perennials to support pollinators and beneficial insects, to trees and shrubs that are often chosen for the ability to reseed. In some cases, these plants are the same plants that others are trying to weed out, or are considered invasive. Many of these plants have a long history of being planted by pioneers, such as apple, black walnut and black locust in my area (Western Washington) and have been thoroughly naturalized.

In rural areas, we see a mix of native and non-native plants with varying degrees of cultivation or neglect. The boundary between cultivated and wild is complex and is itself a fascinating subject for study, whether for each of us informally in our own interaction with nature, or for researchers trying to understand the dynamics of a changing ecosystem with novel interactions.

I appreciate iNaturalist as another way to observe and understand these changes. I think it is mostly working as intended. There is a huge gray area between cultivated and wild. How can I be certain just by looking at a photo, if it is cultivated or not? How can a naive observer be expected to determine this, for all but the most obvious cases? And, marking something as cultivated / casual is a downgrade, and often means no identification will be forthcoming, because it is lumped in with data-quality issues and goes into a junk drawer. Given all this, I only mark something as cultivated if it’s very obvious, such as a potted plant or a tree with a nursery tag on it.

I agree that it’s on users of the iNat data to decide how to proceed with the data. But the data on iNat is valid. An organism was found at the specified location at the specified time - that is not disputed. Whether anyone interprets that data to mean organisms are naturalizing or not is a much more complex issue, and that is interpretation, not data. So “false naturalization data” in the title is misleading. It is not the data, it is the interpretation of the data as indicative of naturalization that is subject to question and discussion.


I could only tell you: if you have enough time, flag, flag and again flag such observations. Especially if you have knowledge of which garden species can escape, which one could do it but rarely and which ones are unlikely to do it at all.

It’s the same here in Italy. If users would not flag those observations that are left unflagged, it would turn out that here we are full of wild oleanders, olives, pomegranates, stone pines, horse chestnuts, wisterias and so on, which is far from corresponding to reality.

Fortunately, many users correctly manage their own observations.

Just to clarify please don’t

flag has a specific meaning on iNat, and captive observations shouldn’t be flagged. They should be addressed via the “Organism is wild” option in the DQA.


ok, is mark better?

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Sure, mark as captive or not wild works well.

When users specifically flag for an observation being captive, it takes curator time to close the flags (and then the observation may not end up marked as captive). Thankfully, flags like this have been declining in frequency (in my experience at least).


I’m a field ecologist who works with other people’s data as well as my own, including my old data when i was less experienced. For vascular plants, I don’t feel that iNat data is much more error prone than the general field ecology data that comes from plots and transects conducted by field techs with very little vouchering. At least with photos on most observations I can decide for myself if i think the data requires consideration or not. All biodiversity data is rife with errors, because life is messy and field work even more so. The biggest risk to iNat data right now is the current taxonomic rampage, not too many people not attributing wild to observations.


I think there is no easy answer. There is e.g. a Telekia in my garden (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/171658675) that grew as a weed and I decided not to rip it out when it was small and unknown but wait what it becomes. And I have a thing growing in a pot where a chili seedlings died, that one might become a foxglove or whatever (the famous Rosettes-of-Dicots problem). Telekia not native here, so the seeds must have escaped from somewhere (it is used as ornamental plant, which I intend to do as well with the seeds I collected).


I do my best to label my observations in the way the inat community would like me to. I do think the distinction between wild and cultivated misses something that’s important.

Imagine 1,000 acres of potted garlic mustard existing in the middle of the midwestern United States. All 1,000 acres of potted plants, if observed, would be labeled “cultivated” (non-wild). This benefits only the researcher studying the spread of invasive garlic mustard. They’d avoid inclusion of these plants if labeled correctly.

We absolve the owner of the 1,000 acres of potted garlic mustard from managing its interaction with species existing in our ecosystem that iNat labels as “wild” and uncultivated. Would it matter to an entomologist studying the impact of garlic mustard on native insects that the plants are cultivated? If anything, the additional scientific control of 1,000 acres of potted garlic mustard might help their research. Whether potted, planted, or naturally occurring the plants are interacting with the ecosystem. Why do we feel ok if we successfully keep potted plants away from un-potted plants while offering them freely to the rest of the organisms existing in the same ecosystem? Ultimately, they are still taking up space in the same area as other wild organisms existing in the same eco-region.

For this reason, I don’t get too hung up on calling out obviously cultivated observations that are marked “wild”. I do try to label my stuff correctly tho.

I don’t think the wild vs cultivates/captive distinction really has to do with the ethics of these plants (some plants are perfectly fine in captivity and won’t escape and cause a problem, others are incredibly invasive). In my mind, there are two main reasons for doing this:

  1. iNat’s stated focus is on observing wild organisms. Captive organisms are ok, but are prioritized less. This is also true for many (though not all) IDers, particularly of plants (see comments above), who are less interested in IDing cultivated plants. So marking these observations appropriately meets those goals/the preferences of many IDers.

  2. GBIF (and perhaps other repositories) don’t want imports of cultivated observations. So marking these as such helps meet the needs of downstream data portals.


I agree that it has nothing to do with the ethics of the plant. It sometimes does have to do with the ethics of the planter. We have entire organizations in Ohio built around determining which invasive plants people are not supposed to plant. I don’t get the sense that they’re judging the plants. The plants are just doing what plants do. They are saying, “hey, you people. Stop planting these particular plants. Maybe even remove them when you see them”. They even restrict the sale of these plants in my state. But it always seems like they’re too late. They don’t add a plant to the list until it is already widespread. Possibly they are basing this decision on wild observations of the plant having established itself all over the place.

I think understanding the extent to which popular plants, recently discovered by ordinary humans are being cultivated might be helpful in some way. If some of these cultivated plants are mistakenly marked “wild” and show up on the Ohio Invasive Plants organization radar earlier than they otherwise would have, well…


Sorry, I should have been more specific, I meant “the ethics of maintaining these plants” (I don’t think ethics apply to the plants themselves).
I don’t think the inclusion of the captive/wild criteria is related to the ethics of cultivating any plants (be they native or invasive).



Ohio has a total of 242 observations of Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree). Of these 242 observations, 171 are marked “wild” and 71 are marked “cultivated”. My anecdotal observations suggest to me that this tree is becoming more popular here. I personally believe that this tree has the potential to become invasive in Ohio despite the fact that it is not listed as invasive by the Ohio Invasive Plants council.

If I find that some of the 171 “wild” observations actually appear to be “cultivated”, I feel no burning desire to confront the observer. Doing so would make this tree appear less invasive to those making a determination on its invasiveness. Those making the determination are (or should be) smart enough to look carefully at the data they’re gathering, but maybe they’re smarter still and will avert their eyes!

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Distinguishing between “wild” and “non-wild” organisms is not a denial of the fact that cultivated plants make up a major part of the ecosystems in which other organisms live, or that other organisms interact with these non-wild organisms. Nor does it claim that wild organisms are not affected by human presence in myriad ways.

Marking observations as “not wild” is not a value judgement, nor does it prevent scientists from using the data if they have research questions where non-wild organisms are relevant.

But for all the grey area between wild and non-wild, especially for plants, data about each group tells us different things and has somewhat different use cases.

To start with, it is worth noting that iNat does not collect ecosystem data as such – it collects observations of individual organisms. These observations are not, in most cases, produced systematically and they are subject to the interests and biases of observers. (A plant in a garden bed is less exciting to many users than the quest to discover what weeds have sprouted in an empty lot.) Furthermore, many cultivated plants are in non-public spaces – i.e. private gardens – that are not accessible to users unless it happens to be one’s own garden. Plantings in public spaces may be tracked or recorded by the entities responsible for maintaining the public spaces. My point is that there are likely other resources that can provide more extensive and complete information what plants are being cultivated where (crop statistics, government lists of city trees, planning and purchase records for park flower beds, gardening websites that allow users to maintain a list of the plants in their garden, etc.).

Phenology data: this is one area where observations of cultivated plants can potentially provide a lot of useful information. However, even here, it seems to me to be valuable to maintain the wild/non-wild distinction. Plants that are actively being cared for by humans are subject to different conditions than those that are not: they are likely to receive extra watering, fertilizer, pruning etc. – all of which can affect blooming and fruiting behavior. I realize that “cared for by humans” =/= “planted by humans”, but there tends to be a general correlation.

Occurrence and distribution data: In most cases, researchers studying the occurrence and distribution of plants are going to be interested in wild populations. While iNat records are not systematic, they do provide valuable information about where particular species are present. This is a major use of iNat data, and it requires that organisms known to be non-wild are marked accordingly.

Naturalization of cultivated plants: it is only possible to determine what is naturalizing if we know which specimens are planted and which are not. There are plenty of garden plants which seldom or rarely spread outside of cultivation – for example, because they are poorly suited to survive in the local conditions outside a garden environment. The mere presence of a plant in cultivation does not mean that it can be expected to naturalize in the future. The only way to determine this is to look at those specimens that have successfully escaped cultivation. And this again requires that observations be marked appropriately.

Interactions with other organisms: A record of a plant, whether cultivated or wild, only tells us that the plant is present in a place. It does not in itself tell us anything about what other organisms might be interacting with that plant. Just because a plant is there doesn’t mean that it is in fact being used as a food source by native insects. Records of cultivated plants only become useful for this purpose if additional information – such as an observation field – is added to document the interaction. I will also note that documenting this interaction does not actually require adding a record for the cultivated plant – if one knows what plant an insect has visited or what the host plant of a gall or rust is, this can be recorded by entering the appropriate taxon in the observation field.


Also the garden project on iNat

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A lot of the home projects are focused on observing wild life in one’s garden/property; some users may also include cultivated plants, but certainly not all, and I suspect not necessarily the majority.

I’m not saying that people don’t use iNat for documenting cultivated plants – obviously some do. But if a researcher wanted to find out about what is cultivated in a particular area, I don’t think iNat is likely to be the first or best data source. Only a small percentage of garden owners are iNat users; of those that are, not all of them choose to document their garden plants on iNat. Outside of one’s private property, most iNat users do not document non-wild organisms as thoroughly as they document wild ones.

(Edit: I was curious and checked the numbers – the percentage of observations marked as “not wild” in the home projects umbrella is 2.8%, or approximately half of that on iNat as a whole. I am guessing this is related to the home projects being created by experienced iNat users who are less likely to think that iNat is a place for uploading pictures of pretty garden plants…)


It most certainly does prevent scientists from using the data if the scientist is unable to see it. It’s my understanding that cultivated plants (including natives) are not made part of the gbif data… admittedly this is something that must be decided by gbif not inat… but still, I’d hope inat would lead on this, not follow. The reason they should lead on this is that iNat represents ordinary schmo’s like me.

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