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Plant Information on the Internet: A Cautionary Tale

September 29, 2015

Amsonia bloom (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)Recently, I noticed that many readers were coming to my blog from a website I had never heard of, so I clicked through to check it out. The link took me to a blog that claims to provide “the most comprehensive gardening information, as well as hints and tips to help the gardener at every skill level.” I found myself looking at a photo of Amsonia blooms from my garden. The photo was part of an article entitled “The 11 Best Fall-Blooming Flowers for Your Yard,” with Amsonia listed as #6. Huh??

The problem here wasn’t with the use of the photo from my blog. I don’t object to others using my photos as long as they provide proper credit, and the amsonia photo included my watermark and a link back to my blog.  The problem was with the information provided. If the person who wrote this article had bothered to read my post on Amsonia, she would have known that it blooms in early summer, not in fall. The article on Best Fall-Blooming Flowers advised that “The small bunches of whitish-blue flowers look great scattered across your yard and garden. They give a cool, calming texture that fits perfectly with fall!” Really?? I’d love to see how that would work. It might be possible to scatter the dwarf variety Amsonia x ‘Blue Ice’ through the garden, but most Amsonia varieties are big architectural plants that are a challenge to divide.

The blog that used my photo as part of its misinformation does not allow for comments, so I was not able to correct the errors in that way. I did fill out a contact form advising about the wrong information, but I received no reply and the post has not been corrected. I can only hope that all the readers of the “The 11 Best Fall-Blooming Flowers for Your Yard” who have clicked through to my blog have actually read the post on Amsonia so that they don’t try to use the plant in the way advised. Unfortunately, the blog providing this bad information seems to have a large readership, and I wonder how many readers who haven’t clicked the link to my blog will go out and plant Amsonia for fall flowers.

The lesson here is to beware of plant information on the internet; you can’t trust everything you read there. Here are some suggestions for evaluating online sources of plant information:

  1. Most university and botanical garden sites are trustworthy sources of information. The Missouri Botanical Garden plant finder is an excellent source of information for those who garden in climates similar to that of the garden.
  2. I also find the USDA plants database a good source of information about native and naturalized plants (including which naturalized plants are not native, but invasive).
  3. If you are interested in learning about a particular genus of plant, national societies devoted to that genus can be a wonderful resource. For example, the American Hemerocallis Society daylily database provides information about every daylily cultivar registered with the society.
  4. Some plant nurseries have extensive information about plants in their online catalogs. Nurseries that specialize in particular types of plants can be particularly helpful. For example, Perennial Pleasures has excellent information about phlox for northern gardens. Be aware, however, that putting information up on a nursery’s website is sometimes a job assigned to relatively inexperienced workers, and mistakes do get made.
  5. Some garden bloggers are recognized authorities about particular types of plants or particular climates, and their blogs can be excellent sources of information. For example, Noelle Johnson, who blogs at AZ Plant Lady, is a trained horticulturist and an expert on desert plants. Carolyn Walker at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens has excellent information and advice about (mostly) shade plants. If I were looking for information about succulents, I would certainly trust any information from Debra Lee Baldwin at Gardening Gone Wild. Beware, however, of blogs that claim to be providing expert advice but which provide no information about the author’s credentials.
  6. Bloggers who are writing about their own experience with a particular plant can also provide helpful information. (This is what I was doing in my post on Amsonia.)  But beware of blog posts that are not written by experts and don’t seem to be based on the blogger’s own experience.

There is a lot of great plant information available on the internet – but not all of it is great, and gardeners need to be vigilant in separating the great from the not.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2015 12:38 am

    Thanks so much for sharing all of your information, Jean! Such an important reminder for gardeners and plant lovers everywhere! ♡

    • October 1, 2015 7:32 pm

      Dawn, Even those of us who are pretty savvy about doing research are occasionally tricked by misinformation, so reminders to be careful about the sources of information are useful.

  2. September 30, 2015 9:52 am

    Thanks so much for the recommendation of me and my blog. I heartily agree that internet information (and information from any source, including books, magazines, and plastic plant tags) has to be carefully investigated before being applied to a particular garden. There is so much misinformation published in blogs, and the bloggers often don’t seem to care. If I am researching a plant, I try to find three respected sources for the information that I want. I am always happy if I can start with the Missouri Botanical Garden. Readers also need to be mindful of the location of the writer’s garden. I can provide a lot of helpful info on shade gardening on the East Coast, but it is not necessarily transferable to other parts of the country.

    • October 1, 2015 7:37 pm

      Carolyn, Your high standards of verification confirm my trust in the information you provide! I admit that I’m not as careful as you are; I will consider the Missouri Botanical Garden or Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants authoritative and not bother looking any further. I do, however, try to cite the sources of my information when it is not my own experience. I also agree that we need to be mindful of the writer’s location. I have to take this into account with Armitage, since he gardens in Georgia — but he always reminds the reader of that with phrases like, “In my Georgia garden, this plant blooms in April.” This suggests another rule for evaluating sources: Never trust a gardening source that doesn’t tell you where the author’s garden is.

  3. September 30, 2015 3:33 pm

    Jean, thanks so much for this reminder! It doesn’t matter what we are researching, we have to be sure the sites we visit are credible. There is so much information and misinformation out there. Since I’m in South Carolina, I rely heavily on the Clemson Extension Home and Garden Information Center website. Each state has an extension service affiliated with the state’s agricultural university and gardeners can be sure they are receiving credible information there.

    • October 1, 2015 7:41 pm

      Kathy, That’s for pointing out the usefulness of University extension services in every state. In most states, these are also the folks who run Master Gardener courses and can test your soil. For a while, I found that extension services, because they were linked to the conventional agriculture taught at agricultural universities, weren’t very savvy about organic gardening — but that has changed dramatically in Maine.

  4. September 30, 2015 6:10 pm

    I came across a Dutch blog that was using my photos.
    It comes across as – and here’s one I made earlier, these are growing in MY garden.
    Using someone else’s photos skews the information for ‘my’ garden.

    I go to PlantZAfrica or Kumbula Nursery (she responds to comments which is a help)

    • September 30, 2015 6:16 pm

      couldn’t resist. I see its one of those sites that fakes high visitor counts by splitting the post across 12 screens. NOT a nice place for your photo to be.

      • October 1, 2015 7:44 pm

        Diana, For someone to use your photo and pretend it’s their own is just dishonest. Thanks for your tech-savvy analysis of the artificially inflated blog statistics. I was basing my assessment of the readership by the fairly large numbers coming to my blog from this site. I’ve begun to suspect that this is an intentionally dishonest site that just steals material from others.

  5. October 1, 2015 12:19 am

    These are all good recommendations, Jean. One does have to be very cautious about using information posted on-line. I’ve been disconcerted to find my photos used elsewhere without prior notice but having your input used in a misleading or inaccurate manner is understandably more frustrating still. I had posts appropriated wholesale by one site that I didn’t want to be affiliated with and getting that site to disconnect my feed took an extraordinary amount of time and energy.

    • October 1, 2015 7:48 pm

      Kris, Having your material stolen and used in a dishonest way is very distressing. And it’s more than annoying that the burden is on the honest person to try to stop it. I haven’t been aware of my material being stolen in such a wholesale manner. I know a lot of my photos are up on Pinterest (because I get the clicks from there back to my blog), but I don’t mind that — especially if it brings me new readers.

  6. October 1, 2015 5:01 pm

    Glad you wrote these posts. I really don’t like these “everything you need to know about everything” websites that are full of questionable content. The websites you mention are good choices.

    • October 1, 2015 7:50 pm

      Jason, I’m generally suspicious of “everything you need to know about x” articles as well as all the “ten best plants for …” lists. The latter seem to assume that everyone gardens in similar conditions and what is best for one garden will also be best for another. NOT.

  7. October 2, 2015 7:26 pm

    That bugs me when people take things from my blog without permission. I don’t blame you for watermarking your photos. If I ever start posting pictures I take myself I shall have to learn how to embed the back link under a watermark. Very smart of you to do that.

  8. October 3, 2015 10:44 am

    It is always nice when you get new readers from referrals but it is a shame that the site that linked to your blog was filled with misinformation. Before I add a new plant in my gardens, I always check various sources to make sure the plant is one that will do well and has all the traits I’m looking for.

    • October 5, 2015 2:13 pm

      Karen, I think it is novice gardeners who are not yet acquainted with better sources of information that rely on websites like the one that used my photo. I am hoping that some of those novice gardeners who follow the link there to my blog might see this post about how to find better information.

  9. October 5, 2015 12:17 am

    I wish you could rely on the internet as being accurate. Sadly there is a lot of information on the internet that is suspect, and it is too common that images are just lifted without proper attribution. I am a huge fan of the Missouri Botanical Garden so I was pleased you passed that information on to those who follow your blog.

    • October 5, 2015 2:15 pm

      Charlie, I’m also a huge fan of the Missouri Botanical Garden site — although I have never visited the garden. (Someday!) It is one of my first go-to sources when I’m trying to decide whether a plant would be appropriate for my garden.

  10. October 13, 2015 7:51 pm

    Great resources and a wonderful reminder to readers to check out the facts…i love to go to multiple sites to check on plants and info. I was curious about the article you referenced but could not find it.

    • October 24, 2015 9:20 pm

      Donna, No great loss that you couldn’t find the article.

  11. October 18, 2015 6:44 am

    Hi Jean, the internet is a huge resource that is full of accurate and not-so-accurate information. When I’m looking for plant (and any other) kind of information on the web, I always corroborate the source with others and look for agreement. Sometimes the information matches, sometimes not, in which case I keep going until there’s consensus develops and I get a “feel” for what the correct “answer” is.

    • October 24, 2015 9:20 pm

      Sunil, We should all learn to be so careful in our research.

  12. October 23, 2015 5:10 pm

    Jean – It is always a little disconcerting when someone on the Blogosphere opts to poach information and photos without a courtesy to say so. Interesting that the reference to the plant characteristics aren’t even close to the actual plant in question. Amsonia is one of my garden ‘darlings’ – especially right now, with it’s stunning yellow color! (I was just taking some photos because it caught my eye when I came home!) The purchase was an impulse buy at my favorite nursery – when I saw it called out as a Native to our area and 2011 Plant of the Year (http://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/palette/110501.html)

    As always, you are a ‘plant guru’ to your garden friends and followers. Too bad the internet ‘garden photo poacher’ didn’t spend some time perusing your pages for a while. It would have served them well!

    • October 24, 2015 9:22 pm

      Shyrlene, It didn’t bother me that this blogger borrowed my photo (since it was properly credited). What bothered me is that she sets herself up as an expert and can’t be bothered doing a little research to get the information right; that seems so unethical to me!

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