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If I have a garden plant, say for example, Herniaria glabra, and I want to identify its native plant community, i.e. the dominant species, associated species, soil, climate etc., how do I go about researching this information? What references/resources are available to accomplish that?

The best I have been able to do on-line for the example cited is find a region of China and an altitude range.

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I don't think there's a simple answer. Some places (eg. the UK) are going to be well documented. Others will have virtually no documentation. Documentation will be in everything from readily available books, textbooks, websites, and obscure scientific papers. Often the answer is simply unknown. Also be aware that a large number of garden plants are cultivars of wild species. –  winwaed Sep 8 '11 at 18:43
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@winwaed, thank you for noting that the UK is so well covered (in British Plant Communities). That is probably where I may find information for Herniaria glabra. I have also found resources for Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. However, I would be very surprised if no one has tried to systematically organize plant species according to their plant communities. –  Eric Nitardy Sep 8 '11 at 22:54
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

I've found GRIN and PLANTS to be useful databases (those links both go to H. glabra). Both databases provide links to other databases, and in the case of GRIN, references to dead-tree publications.

By starting there and following links, I end up at efloras (another useful database that links out to yet more). Here, I see:

Roadsides, dry or rocky, sandy places; 0-1200 m

Both efloras and PLANTS have maps showing the US distribution, and both mention worldwide distribution. One link to a European database yields a page that says:

Distribution: Al Au Be Br Bu Co Cz Da Ge Gr He Ho Hs Hu It Ju Lu Po Rm Rs(B,C,W,K,E) ?Sa Si Su Tu [Fe No Rs(N)]

Most of Europe except the extreme north

Based on this information, you can at least make a guess about the climate and soil. Some of the primary sources cited in these databases may give you some of the community information you are looking for. You will probably need to go to a university library to find some of those publications.

Beware that garden plants may be so completely bred and domesticated that finding a "native community" doesn't make sense. You might instead have to look at wild ancestors of a given plant.


I just added a note to this question about scientific research on companion planting and it occurs to me that it may be relevant here as well. You may be able to glean information about native plant communities by researching permaculture "guilds", which are groups of plants assembled by permaculture practitioners that work well together. Guilds aren't necessarily copied from natural plant communities, but they are often inspired by plants that work well together in nature. This would be an alternate starting point on your paper chase, providing a different viewpoint on how things fit together.

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The database links appear to be a helpful first step (on a long paper chase). But I note that "dry or rocky, sandy places" flies in the face of my experience growing both the green and variegated forms of Herniaria glabra. I might agree with the gritty soil, but not the dry part. In any event, this underscores the importance of finding the plant's true home. –  Eric Nitardy Sep 8 '11 at 22:11
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