ISSUE 52  |  Best of 2014

DIY: Identify Leaves and Flowers (There’s an App for That)

December 29, 2014 5:00 PM

BY Michelle Slatalla

If you are like me, you are probably pretty good at the parlor game of identifying certain plants: the flowers your grandmother grew in her garden, the pine cones you spray painted gold in third grade, and forsythia (if blooming). Unfortunately this is not that helpful when you come across some new plant–growing on the side of the road, or over a fence, or at the edge of a trail–that you would like to have, if only you knew how to ask for it at the local nursery.

Now they make apps for people like us. Zillions of electronic field guides such as Leafsnap, NatureGate, and iPflanzen exist to help us identify plants on the fly. Snap a plant’s photo with Google Goggles, or take a picture of a tree’s leaf against a white background–and submit it instantly for analysis. Or click through a list of characteristics (leaf shape, flower color, plant’s height) to make the identification.

(See our review of Plantifer, a new plant ID app for Android and iPhone users, here.)

To see how well the apps work, two of my daughters (Zoe and Clem) and I spent yesterday morning playing CSI: Plant Detective. After we downloaded four free plant identification apps, here’s what we learned:

See 10 Best Apps for Garden Design (tested by a real gardener).

Photographs by Zoe Quittner, except where noted.


Above: We walked around the neighborhood collecting specimens–leaves from trees, wild herbs, flowers, and perennial vines–to put the garden apps through their paces. Our neighbors Steven and Minna, who drove by while we were snipping leaves from a tree, rolled down the car window to shout helpfully, “Try Google Goggles.” Everybody’s an expert.

Above: Maple tree? That’s what we thought too, initially. Our neighbor Lynn walked by while we were discussing the possibility. Lynn (who it turns out studied botany in college) offered this verdict: sweetgum. We asked Google Goggles to confirm the ID, but it couldn’t help us: “No close image matches found.”

Above: Back home, we spread an array of similarly shaped tree leaves against a background of white paper and then submitted photos to Leafsnap, which uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photos of their leaves. (Coincidentally, Leafsnap was developed by my friend Peter Belhumeur, a researcher at Columbia University.)

Leafsnap correctly identified both a leaf from a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and the similar-but-different leaf of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Lynn was right.

Above: Leafsnap matches a photo to images in its library of several hundred species of trees common to the Northeastern United States or Washington D.C.

Above: Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) grows in my front garden. To test NatureGate, a gardening app that has a database of more than 700 flowering plants, we offered the app several data points about the flower (color, shape of corolla, number of petals, etc.); the leaf (shape, margin characteristics, etc.); the plant’s habitat and seasonality, and its other characteristics (height, hairiness, thorniness). But none of the six results NatureGate suggested was accurate. Photograph by Clementine Quittner.

Above: Long-leaved speedwell was NatureGate’s best guess. Photograph by Tico via Flickr.

Above: Taking photos against a white background.

Above: We snipped a bit of another neighbor’s creeping rosemary (thanks, Susan) to test iPflanzen’s powers of recognition. We entered data points about the plant’s characteristics (pinnate, evergreen, purple flower) but were not able to elicit a match from the app’s database of 702 plants.


Above: Everyone thinks Google Goggles can identify anything if you simply snap a photo and upload it. This is not true, Goggle Goggles cannot identify plants or, it turns out, pets: it suggested our dog Larry is a cat. Please don’t tell him. (Google Goggles is better at identifying landmarks and famous artwork.) Photograph by Clementine Quittner.

Above: This is lantana, a common ground cover in my neighborhood. It’s one of those plants whose name I am always forgetting. None of the garden apps helped remind me; when I uploaded this photo to Google Images, however, up popped the correct plant identification.

Above: I’ll keep Leafsnap on my iPhone to help me identify trees. And I’ll keep searching for an electronic field guide to help me identify other sorts of plants on the fly. Have you had different luck? If there’s a terrific app we overlooked, please let us know in the comments below.

We all sifted through the iTunes store to find the 10 Best Garden Design Apps. Wondering about Plantifier? Read our review here.