Wild or Cultivated? How to tell

Hello! I’ve been using the iNaturalist app to make observations (and occasionally ID some) for about half a year. It has been lovely getting more information on the flora, fauna, and other living stuff around me, as well as seeing what other people have reported nearby. Favourite find so far is some elderflower bushes nearby, which led to the potential for delicious syrup (alas, I got there too late, but am keeping an eye on the bush for this spring!).
One thing that often puzzles me is how to tag various plants. What exactly counts as ‘captive or cultivated’? For example, trees found in public parks. Should I ask the city council if they grew by accident or were planted on purpose? Some parks leave parts ‘intentionally untouched’, and when they put a sign up which explains this, it is great. But what about patches which look wild but might have been carefully curated by a gardner? And what about neighbouring country parks and green spaces? Surely some species escape from well-manicured lawns and establish themselves across the UK, but once out in the wild, are they still ‘cultivated’? Japanese knotweed, anyone?
Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but am finding it very hard to decide whether to leave the ‘captive/cultivated’ button unchecked. Usually I hope for a fellow naturalist to correct an error if I’ve made one, yet am not sure if this is an appropriate attitude.
Any suggestions or help would be welcome!

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Here’s the official version of what the terms mean. The meanings for plants and animals don’t correspond for reasons that have been discussed in various topics going back through the archives. This is one.

Make your best judgement about the observation and don’t be too worried about it if you aren’t sure. If you learn later that an observation was marked incorrectly it is an easy thing to go back and change it.

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If you feel the plant looks cultivated, mark it so. Then follow your notifications, so you can change it, if / when you are convinced otherwise.
Otherwise the not marked as cultivated skew the distribution maps, or make the plants look invasive.

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Use your best judgement but don’t routinely expect others to correct this kind of error, as it is often not readily apparent.

Note that species which escape from gardens and parks and manage to grow by themselves are indeed considered wild on iNaturalist.

And species which were originally planted but then propagate successfully by themselves from seed are considered wild too. Not the first generation (the planted ones) but the second generation (the volunteers) and onwards from there, yes.

And yes, some gardens and parks have areas that are deliberately made to look “wild”, and yet are in fact carefully planted, so beware of those.

Within most city parks, virtually all park trees are planted, even the ones that are native species. Although it is true of course that some parks are created from semi-wild areas, such that some volunteer trees end up being included.

If you are not sure, reserve your “wild” labeling for areas which you are pretty certain were not planted. up by anyone – areas that seem completely wild.

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Depends on the park. If the park was previously a forested piece of property it makes no sense to clear it completely then go back and plant new trees.

Groups of trees or bushes that are all the same size, in straight lines, and/or equally spaced are easily recognized as cultivated.

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It may not make sense, but that does not mean it doesn’t happen that a lot of trees are cut down, and then a whole bunch of new trees planted.

Park designers sometimes have very rigid ideas about how they want a park to look.

I am talking small public parks, not someone’s private park on their own estate. Or a National Park, or something of that type.

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In the 1980s I coordinated something called the Speed River Project in Guelph, Ontario. It started out as a little annual river clean-up and turned into a watershed-wide program of ecological restoration and education in which the City of Guelph was a major partner and naturalisation of parkland was a primary goal. We planted thousands of trees and shrubs over the life of the project, all according to plans put together by landscape architects to produce a natural looking landscape of native plants. If you walk there now and didn’t know the history you would probably conclude that much of what you are looking at is wild but the trees in particular are predominantly cultivated by iNat’s definition. Some of the interpretative material that was erected at the time survives but most of it has fallen victim to budget cutting.

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That sound lovely. Pity about the signage falling into disrepair though.

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It really is a pity. It’s something the city should be bragging about. It is also testament to what can happen when park managers break out of the mindset you describe:

It also presents a challenge to people making plant observations for iNat, although its long ago enough that some of the trees there got there on their own. It’s especially gratifying to look through the iNat observations in the area and see native wildflowers that have become established in the heart of the city, sometimes on ground that sits above old landfill sites.

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I have a huge national park right near my house, you go in and it looks wild, in fact in WWII big chunk of trees near town was cut down and replanted, all I see is planted pines and firs, yet with some of them dying it’s not always possible to see the pattern.

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Unpopular opinion but I do not set any of my observations as cultivated. I use iNat as a learning source and flora is something that’s not my strong point so if I see something neat, I want to know what it is. In terms of plants, it’s already hard enough for me to get someone to identify my plants, and if I set to cultivated, then forget getting an id. I do set these observations to cultivated when they are identified but never before.

I think tagging experts should work better, there’re people who know local cultivated flora and can help and then there’re experts who want to see wild plants, but can’t find those through tons of planted shrubs. Also it screws maps, which is the worst.

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As somebody who goes through captive/cultivated observations quite a bit, please please mark all cultivated plants as such.

As for knowing when a plant is cultivated or wild, having a general idea of what plants are native to the area, which are invasive, and which are often grown in gardens will help you immensely.

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OK, but I had a lawn seeded with native seed 10 years ago, mow it every year or two. Things move around, volunteer, and I have no idea what was in the seed other than Little Bluestem. Certainly the bergamot (native species) that showed up in drifts this year were not there in noticeable quantity before, nor the goldenrod. Nor the butterfly milkweed. By my lights, it’s all wild. What do you all think? I planted a rain garden with a number of native plants, but the Physostegia drove the rest out. So they spread and naturalized. I’ve also seen a few out back some years, not others Then this year, presto! a couple of Culver’s Root plants that were never there and never planted, muscling in among the Physostegia. You see the problem?? OTOH, the ferns, mayapple, solomon seal and bloodroot that I brought from Michigan and planted (and the trillium from Lowe’s) I do not report, because they are “cultivated,” although the mayapples have been spreading. So it goes…

Everything that’s not originated from original seeds is wild, but if you do major work to help them grow I’d call those cultivated (those species that were planted).

Thank you so much for the useful replies, as well as fascinating case studies! I wish I could nominate two answers, @pmeisenheimer , as your reply is indeed a good answer. I found having the explanation in-line more useful, though, which is why I ended up choosing @susanhewitt 's one.

@pmeisenheimer your experience with the 1980’s Ontario project is exactly what worries me about making observations here in the UK. Outside cities, many lands are national parks, some of which used to be owned by lords, earls, etc who employed landscape designers, sometimes with the purpose of creating a ‘wild-looking’ ‘natural’ forest. I’m always very hesitant - on one side, I assume iNaturalist was created so citizens can add observations without needing to be experts in the history of their surroundings. On the other hand, it feels potentially dangerous to leave observations unmarked as ‘cultivated’, as @melodi_96 's example also shows. Striking the right balance for a non-expert is tricky - thankfully I’ve found the community very friendly and helpful, so I hope my continued observations will be part of a symbiotic relationship.

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This topic reminded me of a French book that was turned into an English language animated short film a few years back. The Man Who Planted Trees is kind of about this subject, sort of about the What Does it Mean to Be An Expert topic and very much a meditation on how to lead a meaningful life. I just watched it for the first time in years and thought maybe folks who haven’t had the pleasure would appreciate the link.

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In practice, I find identifiers assume locally native plants are wild unless the observer explicitly stated otherwise; likewise they assume non-native plants are cultivated unless the observer explicitly stated otherwise.

There’s a couple of factors at play:

  1. the letter-of-the-law definition set out by iNaturalist, which is that first-generation plants intentionally planted by a human are cultivated
  2. whether or not the species of plant is native to that spot (aka, does this observation mess up a range map)
  3. whether that species is automatically marked captive by iNaturalist algorithm
  4. the opinions of the identifiers who see the observation

Example #1: Locally native plants installed by a restoration project are by iNaturalist definition cultivated, but will the identifiers mark them as such? No.
Example #2: A family scattered a packet of non-native wildflower seeds in their yard many years ago, and today some descendants of those flowers are still coming up. By iNaturalist definition these are not cultivated, but will the local identifiers mark them cultivated? Yes.

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Or street trees. That really annoyed me a few weeks ago – one observer who posted dozens of pictures of street trees in Santo Domingo, many of them of the same four or five species. They were all “unknown,” so I IDed them as “Dicots” (or more specific if I happened to know), then unfollowed each, because I don’t want to see every update.

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