Wolfram|Alpha Gets a Green Thumb with Plant Data

March 21, 2012
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Jeff Bryant
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It’s spring and I am ready for it. In the last few years I have come to love gardening and the general outdoors more so than I ever have in the past. Something about spending time in the warm sunlight, getting your hands dirty, and being in touch with nature is relaxing. I’ve found myself paying more attention to many green things around my yard that I would have previously just dismissed as a “weed.” Now I find that many of these things are not only beneficial, but in some cases edible. We at Wolfram|Alpha recently decided that we needed to beef up our plant coverage to include more than just, primarily, taxonomic information. Wolfram|Alpha now makes use of data from the USDA that includes information, mainly qualitative, that gardeners and botanists might find more useful.

One thing of interest is that plants have many common names, and many are not unique. Ask a local nursery if they have a certain plant using its common name and you will likely be shown a whole selection of various plants that go by a given common name. Scientific names go a long way if you want to be more specific. Some examples of plants that I have noticed in my own yard as “weeds” include lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), lesser burdock (Arctium minus), catnip (Nepeta cataria), common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense):

Chenopodium album

Interestingly, many “weeds” often eradicated by farmers in their fields are edible or beneficial for other reasons. Although the USDA doesn’t have a complete list of edible plants, this information is available for many plants. Did you know that dandelions are edible (assuming you don’t follow the modern practice of covering your yard in chemicals, which might make them inedible)?

Are common dandelions edible?

On a related note, purple foxglove can be found in many yards and gardens in the midwestern United States, and is rather toxic:

Is Digitalis purpurea edible?

It’s interesting to note that a heart medication known as Digitalis is made from this plant, which is where it gets its name.

Want to know if a plant is perennial or annual? Using the USDA information, we can answer this in many cases now:

Are poison ivy plants perennial?

If you are interested in butterflies, don’t forget milkweed, which is the primary food source for a number of butterflies, as well as Joe Pye weed. I’m also planning to plant dill and parsley in my garden as host plants for caterpillars.

Keep in mind that gardening is rather a complicated field. Many of the plants you find in your local nursery are hybrids that are customized by people specializing in making plants look a specific way. These often do not occur in nature.

With a little manual effort, you can often plant some species not found naturally in your area. Just because a plant can grow in your area doesn’t mean that it is found naturally. Determining if a plant will grow in your area depends on many factors, making it difficult to figure out in general. The North American distribution map is provided from USDA data and is meant to show where plants have naturalized. If you want to know if a given plant is found naturally in your area, you can ask Wolfram|Alpha:

Is Eastern Purple Coneflower found in Illinois?

Systematic data on custom hybrids is harder to come by.

The new data doesn’t just cover garden plants, but trees as well:

Are longleaf pine and douglas fir found in South Carolina?

Some plants are more heavily researched than others, and so more data is available. For example, there is quite a bit of information available for the common sunflower.

Hopefully, Wolfram|Alpha can provide you with a new tool to help you learn more about the plants you are going to put in your garden this year.

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