Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “plants”

What plants can I expect to find in North Dakota? (Worked Example)

In the entry for the USDA Plants Database, I say you can use this resource to answer the question, “What plants can I expect to find in North Dakota?” Here’s how as of February 2014:

In the right hand column, “I want to …” click on See a list of the plants in my state. On the State Search screen that follows decide whether you want a list of every plant that grows naturally in North Dakota or if you want to narrow things down.

To see EVERYTHING, leave the search box blank, check North Dakota and click on whether you want to sort by scientific name, common name or symbol. For North Dakota, this leads to 8275 plants.

To see a more limited scope of plants, try entering a common name with a wildcard “*” character. For instance, enter *berry in the search criteria and make sure “common name” is selected and that “sort by common name” is checked on the bottom and that North Dakota is checked. This yields a list of 162 berries that grow in North Dakota, including:

Remember to click on North Dakota to check for a county level distribution of plants. For example, while the American black elderberry is found in North Dakota, it only grows in a handful of counties.

Fun fact. Doing a similar search on *bane yields 70 plants that grow in North Dakota, including “spreading dogbane.”

Full disclosure forces me to point out that as far as I can tell there is no easy way to use the Plants Database to answer a question of what ONLY grows in North Dakota and no other state. But at least your North Dakota stories can avoid outdoor plants that only grow elsewhere.

The entry for for the USDA Plants Database is just one of the resources available from the Flora and Fauna Chapter of Writer’s Guide to Government Information.


Plants of Minnesota

Plants of Minnesota – http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/plants/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What does luminous moss look like?
  • What are some kinds of orange wildflowers?
  • How do I measure a tree?


This is a guide to native plants in Minnesota and is divided into the following sections:

  • Aquatic plants
  • Ferns, lichens, mosses
  • Trees & shrubs
  • Wildflowers
  • Gardens & landscaping
  • Rare plants

This resource has particularly detailed resources on moss and lichens through the “Moss Atlas” feature. According to the Atlas, it lists the presence or absence of 358 species and varieties of mosses within the 87 counties of Minnesota.

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.

Northwest Native Plant Guide

Northwest Native Plant Guide – https://green2.kingcounty.gov/gonative/index.aspx

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How can I use windstorm debris for plants?
  • What might a character plant to discourage deer?
  • What does a paper birch tree look like?


This Seattle area guide is focused on getting people to use native plants in their landscaping. Two notable resources from this site are “find a native plant” and “How to Articles.”

The Find a Native Plant section has plant images and can browsed or searched. The database is searched by plant type, moisture requirements, exposure requirements, general (including aggressive, fire-resistant, fruit, spreading), color, growing habit, and wildlife (attract birds and butterflies). Plant records include images, size of plant, description and keywords. Some records links to articles. For instance, the entry for black gooseberry links to the article deer resistant plants.

The “How To Articles” focus on different gardening practices and might be helpful for depicting characters who garden or who need to deter deer or paper wasps.

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