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Plant Identifier: Apps to ID Leaves and Flowers

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Plant Identifier: Apps to ID Leaves and Flowers

March 18, 2018

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.

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Now they make apps for people like us. Zillions of electronic field guides such as Leafsnap, Plantifier, and iPflanzen exist to help us identify plants on the fly. Snap a plant’s photo 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 plant ID app for Android and iPhone users.)

To see how well free plant identification apps work, two of my daughters (Zoe and Clem) and I recently downloaded a few and spent a morning playing CSI: Plant Detective. Here’s what we learned.

Photography by Zoe Quittner, except where noted.

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, &#8\2\20;Try Google.&#8\2\2\1; Everybody&#8\2\17;s an expert.
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.” Everybody’s an expert.
Maple tree? That&#8\2\17;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: sweet gum. Could we confirm the ID?
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: sweet gum. Could we confirm the ID?
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.)
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 leaf of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Lynn was right.

Leafsnap matches a photo to images in its library of several hundred species of trees common to the Northeastern United States and Washington, D.C.
Above: Leafsnap matches a photo to images in its library of several hundred species of trees common to the Northeastern United States and Washington, D.C.
Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) grows in my front garden. To test other gardening apps with their own databases of plants, we offered several data points about the flower (color, shape of corolla, number of petals, etc.); the leaf (shape, margin characteristics, etc.); the plant&#8\2\17;s habitat and seasonality, and its other characteristics (height, hairiness, thorniness). But none of the six results the other apps suggested were accurate. Photograph by Clementine Quittner.
Above: Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) grows in my front garden. To test other gardening apps with their own databases of plants, we offered 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 the other apps suggested were accurate. Photograph by Clementine Quittner.
Taking photos against a white background.
Above: Taking photos against a white background.
We snipped a bit of another neighbor&#8\2\17;s creeping rosemary (thanks, Susan) to test iPflanzen&#8\2\17;s powers of recognition. We entered data points about the plant&#8\2\17;s characteristics (pinnate, evergreen, purple flower) but were not able to elicit a match from the app&#8\2\17;s database of plants.
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 plants.
Google cannot always identify plants or pets: It thinks our dog Larry is a cat. Please don&#8\2\17;t tell him. Photograph by Clementine Quittner.
Above: Google cannot always identify plants or pets: It thinks our dog Larry is a cat. Please don’t tell him. Photograph by Clementine Quittner.
This is lantana, a common ground cover in my neighborhood. It&#8\2\17;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: 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.
I&#8\2\17;ll keep Leafsnap on my iPhone to help me identify trees. And I&#8\2\17;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&#8\2\17;s a terrific app we overlooked, please let us know in the comments below.
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.

Need help identifying plants? See our curated Garden Design 101 guides to Perennials, Annuals, Succulents & Cacti, Ground Covers, Edibles, ornamental Grasses, and Trees.

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