There’s an App for That: Identifying Plants with Tech Tools

September 8, 2018


Question:

What smartphone apps or other tools do you like for plant identification?

- Several New Mexican Gardeners

Answer:

Plant identification is important and fun, but it can also be frustrating and potentially dangerous if done wrong. In the past year, I have downloaded—and subsequently deleted—multiple smartphone apps that were clumsy, slow, or yielded incorrect results. The one I find myself going back to again and again is called Pl@ntNet.


According to the app’s credits tab, the Pl@ntNet project is run by a consortium of four French research “organisations” (CIRAD, INRA, INRIA, and IRD) with support from a French botany social network, TelaBotanica, and funded by the Agropolis Foundation. This image sharing and retrieval application for the identification of plants is free and available on both Apple and Android devices; it’s also offered online.

The things I like best about this app are that it does not require a login or account and you can either take live photos or select from your photo library. Once submitted, the app provides a long list of possible matches based on the photo. I usually find the correct plant among those, or at least get close enough to identify the plant family and then use another reference, like an old-fashioned book, to get down to the correct species.

Pl@ntNet was just made available to users in North and South America this year, and it already recognizes more than 13,000 wild plant species as well as 2,500 cultivated and ornamental species.

Plant maps with an added digital component that allows smartphone users to collect data are becoming a thing across the country, especially in parks and on college campuses. These are helpful because you can visit an area, access information, and add new data about a particular plant (like seasonal photos or visible pests). NMSU geography professor, Dr. Carol Campbell, is exploring this type of teaching tool in her freshman “Culture and Environment” classes. Graduate student Scott Miller constructed a tree survey using ESRI’s Survey123 app software. In class, students use the app to learn how to collect geographic data, differentiate between tree species on campus, record and manage data, and then plot the location in Google Earth to look at spatial patterns. The public can look forward to accessing more of these interactive projects as they’re being developed.

I also enjoy using Facebook groups or pages for plant ID. Members upload photos of the plant in question with location details, and experts of all kinds are encouraged to give input. A few that I recommend are Native Plants of New Mexico (1,305 members), Entomology (116,329 members), Plant Identification (151,627 members), and Plant Identification and Discussion (221,183 members). Many others groups exist for identification of trees, snakes, fungi, etc.

Other great resources include our NMSU county Extension offices (http://aces.nmsu.edu/county/), where Extension agents help people identify plant and pest species year-round. If they cannot determine the species, the county agent may decide to send a sample and photos down to the NMSU Plant Diagnostic Clinic (http://aces.nmsu.edu/ces/plantclinic/), where a triage of experts provides input.

When using any of these tools, the quality of the sample and/or photo is important. It’s helpful to have both zoomed-in pictures of foliage and photos of the entire plant form. For actual plant tissue samples, check leaf shapes on the plant to be sure you collect leaves that are representative of the whole plant. Last week at a botany presentation, Dr. Curtis Smith, retired NMSU Extension Horticulture Specialist, paraphrased a professor of his: "A true botanist will not identify a plant without a flower." It’s true that flowers are always helpful and can be crucial for absolute identification. However, flowers are not always available for photographing. They may have already bloomed or not bloomed yet. Some houseplants don’t ever flower indoors.

It’s easy to get discouraged in this wild world, but if you find yourself getting tired and cranky while trying to ID a plant, don’t worry—there’s a nap for that.


Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: desertblooms@nmsu.edu, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.

Links:

For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at desertblooms@nmsu.edu, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!