Cornell bird app, but for plants?
June 14, 2021 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I love the Cornell bird app. Is there an equivalent for trees and wildflowers? The ones I'm finding don't work the same way. Please don't answer this question unless you're willing to read what I don't like about the ones I'm finding.

The Cornell app walks you through specifics about the birds and then shows you some possibilities. The plant apps I'm finding online ask you to take a picture and send it in and then experts get back to you. I do not want to do this. With Leafsnap, you need to put the leaf on a sheet of white paper. I don't want to carry paper with me or take leaves home. I want to be able to figure out what something is by looking at the app. Does this exist?
posted by FencingGal to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Seek is pretty good at this!
posted by mollweide at 6:53 AM on June 14, 2021 [7 favorites]

This is a good list of plant identification apps for both Android and iOS

Of those, PlantSnap looks the most likely to do what you need.
posted by underclocked at 6:55 AM on June 14, 2021

Seconding Seek, which is the greatest app of all time for the amateur naturalist. Does flowers, plants, trees, insects, spiders, and so on.

There is an option to upload to iNaturalist for further identification if it can't find a match, but it works live from the camera nearly every time I use it. Aim the camera and it it'll tell you within a few seconds what you're looking at through the viewfinder.

Seek is what you're looking for.
posted by jquinby at 7:11 AM on June 14, 2021

I also use Seek - probably more for plants than anything else, since they hold still for a good picture, unlike birds and other wildlife. This weekend I tried to get it to ID an earthworm of great size and vigor, and the best it could do was "Animals".
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:14 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Would you mind clarifying if you do not want to take any pictures at all, or if you mean you do not want expert review/identification of pictures?

Virginia Tech's tree app uses (or used to use--I haven't used it in some time) an interview format based on binomial keys.
posted by Laetiporus at 7:18 AM on June 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seek is awesome. I have told the Scouts in our troop to use it: it doesn't demand a lot of personal info.

The only downside I can see is that you might chew up your phone's storage, because it uses pictures and not the live camera view. *shrug* So after you identify a bunch of things, you may need to go to your photos library and delete all those Shaky Leaf Pictures. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:19 AM on June 14, 2021

Response by poster: Would you mind clarifying if you do not want to take any pictures at all, or if you mean you do not want expert review/identification of pictures?

My preference is not taking pictures at all, but it may be OK if I don't have to send them in for review.
posted by FencingGal at 7:24 AM on June 14, 2021

It looks like Laetiporus's "binomial key" phrase is the key - here's the first one I've found, on the Native Plant Trust's website. The USDA version is... rather more complex.
posted by sagc at 7:32 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Nthing Seek because it does not make you send them in. It allows you to add them as observations to your iNaturalist account and get other people's opinions, but that is not required.
posted by soelo at 7:38 AM on June 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure where you are, but the Sunbird apps I have all seem to support key-based identification - e.g. for the Wildflowers one, you can tell it how many petals, what colour the flower is, the shape of the leaf, how the leaves are arranged and various other things, and it offers you a list of possibilities in reverse order of likelihood.

I have some issues with the way the apps are designed - it's always a bit of a challenge to find the right place to enter the details, and if the results suggest I made a bad choice, I end up having to start again from scratch - and the Butterflies one seems to give me MORE results the more constraints I set. So this isn't a wholehearted recommendation, but you might want to give them a go, if there's one for your area.

Here's one of their American guides, as an example; if you look at the screenshots, they're really excited about the photo-based automatic ID, but judging by my (UK) apps, the "Identification" button at the bottom with an eye on it will take you to a manual ID process.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:47 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Even though it's a website, not an app, I second the Native Plant Trust's / Go Botany's Simple Key. It's geographically limited to the Northeast US, so it may or may not be useful for you. You don't have to submit your own photos at all, and instead work your way through a series of questions to help ID the plant. Technical terms are linked to definitions, too.

Using the key helps me figure out what I should be paying attention to (leaf placement, shape, number of petals, etc.) to get better at IDing plants. I also think that their multiple reference photos for each plant makes them easier to ID than looking at illustrations.

Seek is also good, but it definitely doesn't walk you through the ID process like Cornell's bird app does. Seek will give you an ID pretty instantaneously, better for quick IDs.
posted by Guess What at 7:53 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Neither seek nor inaturalist can be browsed like a book the way the Cornell app can. Audubon used to have apps that worked a lot like field guides, and should do what you want in that regard.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:54 AM on June 14, 2021

When I don't have a great image in the camera, I have had Seek show its "thought process" as it narrows down from the general to the species. It's cool, and instructive. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:00 AM on June 14, 2021

sorry--I wrote "binomial key" and meant "dichotomous key." I'm tired.
posted by Laetiporus at 9:14 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

MrR uses the PlantNet app. He aims the phone camera at a plant, snaps a picture when it says "good", and it comes back with an ID within seconds. Sometimes he needs to take a second picture for clarity's sake, but not very often. It doesn't walk you down its thinking pattern though, and won't teach you how to ID plants on your own.
posted by jlkr at 1:07 PM on June 14, 2021

Plant ID apps (as opposed to websites) seem to have really gone down the photo ID route, in general. The Go Botany (Native Plant Trust) keys, mentioned above, are the best thing I know of that avoid the use of photos entirely, and the website is reasonably useable on mobile.

Go Botany is an online/user-friendly version of the Flora Novae Angliae - so, most applicable if you are located within New England, and mostly still useable for the surrounding Northeast US, but less useful as you get farther away from that region. On the Go Botany site, the Full Key includes more species than the Simple Key, which is faster to use but omits rare species. The Dichotomous Key includes more technical botanical descriptions and most closely resembles the Flora Novae Angliae reference text.

I have not had much luck finding similarly useable web keys for plants outside of Go Botany, although I would love to see other regional flora get the same kind of platform. The Virginia Tech tree key was mentioned above; they also have a weed key for a lot of herbaceous plants. Many other keys are quite technical and can be fussy to use (much like the Dichotomous Key on Go Botany) - that technical detail is important for a lot of similar-looking plants, though, which is an area where the photo-based ID (and simple keys) can let you down.

Outside of websites with plant keys, Seek is probably the closest to what you want. It does rely on photos (either photos you've already taken, or scanning plants with your phone camera directly within the app), but doesn't require you upload them for expert review - although as mentioned above, it is an app associated with iNaturalist, and does give you the option of uploading to iNaturalist for additional review.

Seek doesn't require you put plant parts on a white background, although clearer photos are likely to get a correct ID. However, you don't get the same experience of learning what characteristics to look for for ID, the way that you do by working through the Cornell bird app or through the Go Botany keys, if that's an important part of the experience for you. You can see Seek narrow down its ID as it scans the photo (going from a broad ID of "plant", to the family, to the species), but the machine image recognition isn't telling you things like "this is Species A rather than Species B because of the density of hairs on the underside of this leaf."
posted by pemberkins at 8:01 AM on June 15, 2021

“Picture This” is an iPhone app that IDs plants. You take a picture of the plant and then it looks it up in its database and automatically gives as answer. It has been pretty accurate so far on various plants that I have other ways of identifying, even when they are so small they are nearly seedlings. It also identified some mosses for us. It will balk if there’s no internet but otherwise it’s been fast and fun. It supplies a pretty good slate of information with the identification. I strongly recommend it.
posted by bq at 6:03 PM on June 18, 2021

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