With so many plant apps out there to choose from, just where do you turn when trying to identify a troublesome plant?
Many botanists turn their noses up at the idea of using a plant app. Indeed, this approach requires minimal skill, no field guide and really, not a single jot of traditional botanical knowledge. It is in essence, as I have heard some put it, cheating. If indeed it is possible to cheat while doing something as harmless as naming a plant…
In our age of wildlife decline and increasing disconnection with the natural world, any engagement with wildlife should be nurtured and encouraged. Especially when, as is the case here, such engagement can help generate all-important wildlife records that help further our knowledge of wildlife. As times change, a fleet of new mobile apps are now giving anyone, not just tried and tested naturalists, the ability to accurately identify wildlife.
Of these new apps, a comparatively large number focus on plants. I suspect because plants are stationary, less likely to run away and thus, easier to photograph. With so many apps out there to choose from, however, just where do you turn when trying to identify a troublesome plant? And more importantly, will your chosen app give you an accurate result or point you in the wrong direction entirely?
To answer the questions above, I thought I’d conduct a little experiment by testing some of the most popular apps for myself.
First, some ground rules
- One image only – some apps allow for multiple images but we wouldn’t want to give an unfair advantage now, would we.
- Foliage only – the vast majority of the plants we see each day are not in flower. Let’s put these apps to the test…
- UK natives, with one exception – I wanted to test this on plants likely to be encountered by British botanists. Odd things do escape, however, so we’ll include one bonus!
Meet the subjects
- Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
- Water Avens (Geum rivale)
- Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
- Hoary Mullein (Verbascum pulverulentum)
- White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
- Majorca Nettle (Urtica bianorii)
Comparing Plant Apps
Apps that identify the plant as their first choice will receive 1 point. If the correct plant is identified but shown as an outlying choice, we’ll deduct points for each subsequent tier. For example, White Horehound coming in 4th would early 0.6 points. I may give extra points in some places if the apps manage to impress me…
|Ivy-leaved Toadflax||Water Avens||Deadly Nightshade||Hoary Mullein||White Horehound||Bonus|
|PlantNet||✔ 1||✔ 0.7||✔ 0.9||✔ 0.7||✔ 1||✖||4.3/6|
(Broke the app!)
|Picture This||✔ 1||✔ 1||✔ 1||✔ 0.9||✔ 1||✖||4.9/6|
|LeafSnap||✔ 1||✔ 0.7||✔ 0.9||✔ 0.9||✔ 1||✔ 0.5 (Similar species)||5/6|
|Seek||✔ 1||✖||✖||✖||✖ 0.1 (Family level)||✖||1.1/6|
One of the best plant apps out there…
Truthfully, I hadn’t heard of LeafSnap until researching for this fun Friday exercise. That said, it fared well across the board proving accurate on some of the more distinctive plants and narrowing down the more difficult Hoary Mullein and Water Avens based on foliage alone. It didn’t identify these straight away, but both could be found lower down beneath its number one picks of Scarlet Avens (Geum coccineum) and Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus).
LeafSnap would have come second had it not been for its valiant attempt at identifying Majorca Nettle which, despite not being 100% right, at least brought me to the similar Urtica atrovirens. I suspect it would fair well against those pesky garden escapes so many of us encounter on a daily basis…
On a more practical note, LeafSnap is easy to use and provides some handy information that some users might find interesting. Top marks!
Picture This (4.9/6)
The best at British plant species...
Picture This would have won hands down if I had not included the dodgy nettle. This ended up being ‘accurately’ identified as Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa) which it certainly isn’t.
This nifty little app did, however, identify four out of the five native species accurately and for the pesky mullein, was only one species out leaving scope for the user to compare photos and draw the right conclusion.
For those interested in the background information, Picture This gives a wealth of it covering everything from characteristics and symbolism to pests, diseases and garden use. Altogether, it is rather comprehensive!
I do like this one...
I’ll hold my hands up now and say that I have used PlantNet plenty of times before, both to identify plants purchased for the garden and out in the wilds. It usually holds up fairly well and was only pipped to the post this time owing to a small struggle with the Water Avens and Hoary Mullein. It also didn’t guess the nettle, but perhaps I’m being mean?
One thing I really like about PlantNet is its ability to search based on regional flora. For example, someone holidaying in Spain might select ‘Flora of the Western Mediterranean’ to help them narrow their search. It is also one of the best for comparing multiple botanical characteristics and is usually accurate when flowers, foliage and habit are included.
PlantNet is by far the most scientific of the apps featured in this list and features no end of comparison photos, facts and useful information. In reality, it is more of a digital field guide than some of the others on this list.
Really should do better...
Oh iNaturalist, what went wrong? While Seek managed okay with the Ivy-leaved Toadflax it did less well elsewhere, managing to assign White Horehound to the correct family but failing completely with the other species. Okay, so it did flag that the subjects were dicots but I think most of us knew that already?
While I would never personally use Seek, one positive I would mention is its use in positive engagement. Like iNaturalist who developed it, it makes wildlife recording fun giving badges and keeping count of how many species you have encountered. I imagine it would be great to use with children or as part of Bioblitz-type events.
Avoid, unless perhaps you’re visiting a garden centre...
I’m not in the habitat of being catty when it comes to things like this but my word, I’m not sure which plants PlantSnap was developed to identify but it certainly wasn’t any you can expect to encounter here. It was wrong on almost every account besides White Horehound which it identified first as a duo of mint species before drawing the right conclusion.
I would also add that the app crashed three times while using it, took a long time to process anything and eventually gave up completely while trying (very hard, I’m sure) to name the nettle. I certainly won’t be recommending it but alas, it might work better on flowers!