Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Plants Database from USDA

Plants Database from USDA – http://plants.usda.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What plants can I expect to find in North Dakota?
  • What does Sonoran Indian mallow look like?
  • What does flowering garlic look like?


While this plants database has many good features, the two items that you should know most about are the Plants Gallery and the State Checklists.
The Plants Gallery contains over 40,000 images consisting of photographs and line drawings. It is the place to go if you want to see what Sonoran Indian mallow looks like. The gallery can be searched by scientific name, common name, family name, category (fern, etc), Duration (annual, perennial, etc), artist (for line drawings), citation, image location, native status, wetland status, distribution by state and province (Canadian)

Records from gallery searches contain the scientific and common names of the plant, growth habit, native status, images, synonyms, a distribution map and a “kingdom to species” classification. Using the plant gallery will give you something to write a description from and let you know if you’ve correctly placed that plant. If you want to use a non-native plant out in the middle of nowhere, that could be a clue to something being out of place.

According to the Plants.gov website, the state checklists contain “Symbol, Synonym Symbol, Scientific Name with Authors, National Common Name, and Family. Fields in this text file are delimited by commas and enclosed in double quotes.” These files are spreadsheet friendly.

Although the feature is called “state checklists”, this information is also available for US territories and protectorates, Canadian provinces, Greenland (Administered by Denmark) and St. Pierre and Miquelon (Administered by France).

Other helpful features on plants.gov include guides to “culturally significant plants” which document significant human (often indigenous) uses and the Threatened and Endangered species database which can be used to give your character a cause.

Search Tips:

Clicking on Advanced Search provides access to dozens of different criteria that can be combined. This screen allows you to search for plants of high toxicity in a given state as well as for plants that can be human or livestock food. The search for toxic plants does not provide details about their toxicity. You’ll need to go to other resources for details.

In addition to effects on humans, one can search by height, life cycle characteristics and so much more.

The search results only list scientific names, but clicking on a name brings up a report that include the plant’s common name.


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