As herbalists, especially if you are a herbalist that wildcrafts, having knowledge of botany and plant identification is absolutely essential in order to get a correct ID on a plant you are harvesting and to recognize the poisonous plants and their look-alikes that grow in our locales. We have all heard the tales during our herb studies of people who have incorrectly identified plants and ingested something that is poisonous and didn’t make it. Whether we know these people or not, it still hits home. There is no room for error. However, this shouldn’t scare us from harvesting and using plants in the wild. Learning from other herbalists, plant walks and studying field guides is something that we should all participate in on a regular basis to keep on top of our knowledge and gain confidence in our skills. However, I feel that in this quick fix nature of modern society, we don’t seek out knowledge anymore; we just want the answers and we want them in an instant. So, when I heard about apps for plant identification I was naturally skeptical about their accuracy and decided to do an experiment.
I picked three free plant ID apps for my experiment: myGardenAnswers, LeafsnapHD and British Columbia Wildflower Search. Read on to found out how each app fared.
LeafsnapHD: So I am kind of a technophobe but not completely stupid when it comes to technology (I can usually figure things out when I need to!) but this app was by far the most difficult to use. This app focuses on trees and shrubs so I picked a leaf from a nearby Saskatoon berry bush (Amelanchier alnifolia) as a test leaf. The app allows you to take a picture of the leaf and tries to match it to a picture in their database. Unfortunately, the app wouldn’t allow me, for reasons unknown, to take a picture of the leaf in question so I was unable to use this feature to identify my test leaf. However, I was able to use the browse feature to search through their database which features detailed close up pictures of leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, and petioles to find a match and identify my leaf. I did like this feature and I was able to use it to correctly identify my test leaf but due to the un-user-friendliness, this app gets 2.5 out of 5.
myGardenAnswers: This app had a couple of features which I was quite excited to use, including plant ID via photo recognition and ‘ask a horticulturist’ – a feature where you can ask a question on plant identification or diseases and problems and a trained professional will reply within 24 hours. This feature, however, was not free so I didn’t use it to try and identify my test plant for this app. My test plant for this app experiment was Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). I took a picture using the app of the chokecherry blossom and the app came back with a whole host of flowers that looked similar and the fourth picture correctly matched my test flower. However, this app didn’t provide any extra information on the plant and if you wanted some clarification from an expert you have to pay so for those reasons, this app gets 4 out of 5.
British Columbia Wildflower Search: This app was created by botanists so I was hopeful that this would be able to identify my test flower, which in this case was the beautiful Western Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa). The app’s layout is simple to use; you tap on pictures to match the plant type, flower colour, number of petals, leaf arrangement and habitat of your specimen. The app then comes up with a shortlist of plants each containing detailed pictures, information, location maps and links for further information. When I did this for my test flower it came back with a shortlist of 10 plants with Western Columbine topping the list. As this app correctly identified the flower and provided me with heaps of extra information and links about the plant, I will award it 5 out of 5.
These apps all managed to identify my test plants and each provided varying amounts of information about those plants so they did do their job. But I’m still skeptical and I will continue to be. My point really is that although plant ID apps and social media ID groups can provide some answers and confirm our identification, it shouldn’t replace our knowledge of botany and identifying patterns. We shouldn’t rely on these methods. In short, there is no substitute for knowledge. Let me know in the comments if there is a plant identification app you love!