tools: index

The productive, perennial plants found in The Elements, our species index, make up the basic units of foodscape design.

Their pattern profiles can be accessed here:

Browse the Species Index

a database of productive perennial plant species for North America

species index

The species index tracks a set of almost 80 descriptive fields for each species. These are grouped into the following:

Field Description
Family Taxonomic group containing one or more genera
Common name(s) Vernacular name for a given species that varies by place or culture
Origin Geographical place of origin for species
NA Native status How plant came to exist in North America
Climate zone Biome categories indicative of general climate patterns plant where plant thrives
USDA zone Geographically defined area in which a specific category of plant life is capable of growing, as defined by climatic conditions, including its ability to withstand the minimum temperatures of the zone
Sunset zone Nuanced geographical profile that considers temperature; latitude: elevation; ocean influence; continental air influence, mountain, hills and valleys; and microclimates
  • Tree/Palm: woody perennial > 12′
  • Shrub: woody perennial w no trunk >3′
  • Grass: non-woody perennial grasses, sedges, rushes
  • Vine: woody perennial or non-woody annual/perennial twining/climbing w long stems
  • Forb/herb: non-woody perennial/annual/biennial
Field Description
Growth form General pattern plant produces above ground
Trunk form Pattern category for the shape of the plant’s trunk
Root pattern General pattern plant produces below ground
Branching type Pattern of how a plant’s branches are organized
Texture Relative perceived surface quality regarding size and shape (not feel) of plant
Field Description
Duration Category that describes plants seasonality or longevity
Propagation Various ways plant may be reproduced
Wildlife attracts Kinds of wildlife attracted to plant
Leaf retention period Categories that indicate to what degree plant retains leaves year-round
Leaf drop intensity Relative volume of leaves dropped
Fragrance type Type of noticeable odor, if any, eminating from plant
Allelopathic Produces one or more biochemicals that influence the germination, growth, survival, and reproduction of other organisms nearby
Conditional tolerance Types of conditions plant can withstand
Hazards Categories of known potential harmful qualities of plant
Hazards description Descriptions of known potential harmful qualities of plant
Field Description
Growth rate Rate of increase in size over time
Expansive Known to be potentially invasive due its rapid growth in North America
Growth habits Pattern of growth exhibited by given plant type
Plant height at maturity, lower Plant height at maturity, lower end of range
Plant height at maturity, upper Plant height at maturity, upper end of range
Trunk height, lower Trunk height, lower end of range, from ground level to where it starts branching
Trunk height, upper Trunk height, upper end of range, from ground level to where it starts branching
Crown density Degree to which pant’s canopy is closed or open to light pass through
Crown spread, lower Widest dimension of crown, lower end of range
Crown spread, upper Widest dimension of crown, upper end of range
Field Description
Flowering type Whether plants produce flowers; differentiated slightly for non-flowering plants
Bloom time Season(s) in which a flower or inflorescence may appear
Flower color Categories for color of flower or inflorescence
Fruit present Season(s) fruit is(are) present throughout the year
Fruit type Descriptive categories for fruit
Fruit/pod/nut/pine nut size Relative size of fruit, nut, pod or pine nut/cone
Field Description
Disturbance Types of interventions necessary to maintain plant at a desirable level of productivity or a given form
Maintenance required Degree human attention a given plant requires based on Growth rate, Maximum harvest frequency, and Productivity
Carbon Relative amounts of dry organic matter plant needs to maintain health and a normal growth pattern
Nitrogen (when young) Relative amount of nitrogen needed to feed plant to maintain normal growth, particuarly when immature
Nutrients and minerals Relative amount of nutrients and minerals needed to feed plant to maintain normal growth and health
Pollinator(s) Type of pollinator(s) a plant needs in order to bear fruit
Pest control Degree of susceptibility to pests needing a companion that discourages pests
Sunlight Relative quantity of sunlight plant needs for healthy growth
Humidity Degree of moisture plant prefers climactically
Temp Specific temperature requirements for plant to maintain health or to bear fruit
Water Relative amount of water plant needs to thrive
Soil texture Type of soil(s) plant prefers in order to maintain health
Soil drainage Ideal soil drainage condition plant requires to thrive
Soil fertility Relative quality of soil fertility plant requires to thrive
Root space Relative root space plant needs in order to grow a healthy form
Wind protection Degree plant requires protection from the wind
Support A structure, living or inanimate, is needed for normal plant growth
Field Description
Soil regeneration Category for how plant serves to regenerate soil
Provides shade Relative amounts of shade provided by plant to understory or surrounding plants
Water storage Relative amounts of water stored in the body of the plant at times of normal conditions
Attracts pollinators Plant attracts pollinators
Attracts beneficial insects Plant attracts beneficial insects
Landscape uses Various types of landscape functions provided by plant
Carbon sequestration Relative amount of carbon plant extracts from air to build it’s structure, above or below ground naturally, exclusive of management practices
Field Description
Productivity Degree that plant provides useful products from its parts
Food Plant produces something edible, includes beverages, flavorings, etc.
Edible parts Part of the plant produces something edible, includes beverages, flavorings, etc.
Fiber Plant has parts are harvested for fiber
Fuel Plant parts are harvested to produce energy in any form
Fodder Plant parts are harvested to provide food for animals
Forage Animals may forage on plant
Farmeceuticals Plant has parts that serve a medicinal purpose
Useful parts Plant parts are used for something other than edible, include parts used for fuel, fiber, farmaceuticals, animal feed (forage/fodder)
Value-added products Products that may be made using the plant
Maximum harvesting frequency How often it needs visiting for harvest

The Species Index includes productive plant species for North America: Many edible and many are useful to produce fuel, fiber, feed and ‘farmaceuticals’.

The Species Index will prove indispensable as we strive to rebuild circular economies for primary production of our basic needs.

We can and must create a new culture around productive plants by regenerating our skillsets around how to grow, use and care for them.

Perennial plants live more than one season. These include perennial-like plants and self-seeding annuals.

Perennial plants:

  • require less work, fewer inputs and avoids tilling, which preserves soil structure
  • have extensive root systems that regenerate living soil, which holds more nutrients, minerals, beneficial microorganisms and water
  • can withstand extreme weather, serve to sequester carbon and stabilize slopes

Perennial food crops, in particular, are high in proteins, fats and carbohydrates; are not destroyed by harvesting and yield for multiple years.

The Species Index includes plants from all climate zones in the US and Canada and parts of Mexico.

A plant’s performance is governed by the total climate: length of growing season, timing and amount of rainfall, winter lows, summer highs, wind, and humidity.

The U.S.D.A. maps are limited, describing only where a plant may survive the winter.

Sunset’s climate zone maps take all these factors into account and show where that plant will thrive year-round. Even though these are limited to North America, anyone anywhere can use these patterns and find analogs to similar climate zones.

Much of our urban forests stop at the top. The Species Index includes many forbs/herbs, non-woody vines and shrubs of all sizes.

The more levels of natural forest architecture that our productive plants populate, the less work they will be to maintain because they displace unwanted species (i.e. weeds).

A healthy, diverse understory also increases the survivability rate of our urban trees, increasing their resistance and resilience by providing a whole host of ecological functions for the trees and each other.

The Species Index is an integral tool in the foodscape toolkit.

The Foodscape Tool interacts with the Species Index, to make it easy for users to plan foodscapes for any situation, particularly in underutilized spaces in the public realm.

This is how it works:

The Foodscape Tool’s templates filter out plants from the Species Index using its plant patterns profiles and the template settings. Templates are preconfigured foodscape patterns that are customizable and can be used in multiple contexts in our landscapes. By process of elimination, the Foodscape Tool generates a suggested list of plants appropriate for that context.

The plant species generated from Species Index is cross-referenced and linked with a wiki-style library for thousands of productive plants.

The wiki provides thousands of entries in PDF and other multimedia formats that gives the user a wealth of information on plants in this Index and so many more.

One of our project’s objectives is to stimulate a new culture around productive plants by regenerating our skillsets on how to use and care for them.