Learning the names of backcountry plants and animals is both personally rewarding, occasionally practical, and can lead to a greater empathy and connection with nature.
But, how many of us REALLY want to lug the plant ID book into the woods, and take the time to stumble through it to put a name to that flower or tree?
Well, as they say, there’s an app for that. iPhone users, check out Seek.
This machine learning based app does a remarkable job of identifying plants, wild or domestic. (And apparently animals to, but I haven't tried that yet.)
Here’s basically how it works.
You see a plant you want to know the name of.
You open the app and point your camera at the plant.
In a few seconds identifies the plant (or critter), usually the species.
For any of us who have struggled through the tedious process of keying out a plant in a botany book, this is pretty much the Holy Grail of plant identification.
Is it perfect? No. But still pretty darn impressive.
It’s free. In these days of high dollar premium phone apps, this is a refreshing change.
It works in airplane mode. You can save your battery in the backcountry and still identify plants without a cell connection, very cool.
It seems to work best for plants in North America. It tripped up on a Norway spruce and a Korean pine, although it did get it down to the correct genus.
Supposedly it works for animals also, but that little brown bird I saw didn’t hold still long enough for me to take a picture of it.
The app ID’d flowering plants correctly from the leaf structure only, without seeing the bloom. Going to have to try it next spring when wildflowers are out for sure.
Supposedly it works on mushrooms also. (But, as a long time mushroom hunter, I wouldn’t use this to identify edibles; might want to wait for version 2.0.)
One nice feature: it stores all the plants and critters you have successfully identified, so you can look back at them and refresh your memory. When you tap a plant you’ve saved, it gives you a paragraph or two about it, and the taxonomy of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, which can give you a little more background botany, if that's your thing.
It’s really fun to use. I first gave it a run at what I thought was the perfect spot, the Portland Arboretum. It has a lot of unusual trees, most of them are labeled, and it seemed a perfect place for a test drive. The app did have a stumble or two, (between a fir and a spruce tree) but overall it was about 90% correct.
I’ve been walking by Arctic Butterbur and Hooker’s Fairybells my whole life and never knew the amazing names of these unassuming little flowers!
This app is similar to the amazing improvements in real time translation. You could take years to become proficient in another language, or you can use a translation device that lets you speak with a non-English speaker, in real time, no study required. Call me lazy, but I think I'll usually take the modern technology. =^)