Whether you live in a rural wonderland or a concrete jungle, there are still always some plants around you. But what plants? If you're not an experienced biologist, identifying plants can be quite challenging. Luckily, there's an app for that; or rather, several.
If you're looking for an app to identify plants, you're in luck. While no app is truly perfect, technology and AI-based recognition has progressed so much that there are already several really good solutions out there. Let's check them out.
It's like Shazam for plants - PlantNet is a free app that can help you identify plants based on just taking a picture.
Most people think that science is something abstract, disconnected from the day-to-day reality of life, but I really don't think that's the case. If you want to encourage the scientist inside, observing and understanding the nature around you is a great way of doing so. No matter where you live, you're bound to have around you... but how many can you identify and understand them? Most people can only work out the common ones from their area -- and sometimes, not even that.
The app collects data from a large social network that uploads pictures and information about plants. It's also useful to learn more about plant morphology and biology; you're not just identifying plants, you're also learning about them.
It also does another thing, though more subtle: it makes you interact more with nature. Let's face it, we all pass by trees and plants every day, but we pay little attention to them; most of the time, we don't even notice them. With a bit of practice, you could identify plants as you're walking past them and not only keep your brain entertained but also appreciate your surroundings more.
From what I tested it, it seems to work quite fine, but the database is still a work in progress (especially from North America). Many plants are common between the temperate areas of Europe and North America however, and you can make deductions based on that, so you should be able to manage.
Still, if you're trying to identify plants with an app, PlantNet is by far one of the best places to get started.
This one's a bit different: iNaturalist is a social network for citizen scientists, naturalists, and biologists. It's built on the hard work of scientists and countless biodiversity observations across the globe published by everyday people. There's a website as well as a mobile app for it and currently, the platform has around 250,000 active users and a total of over 120 million observations (not just of plants, but also of fungi, animals, and other organisms).
As far as we could tell, iNaturalist isn't quite as accurate as PlantNet and also isn't as straightforward to use, but it does have one big advantage: there are a lot of people using it, including expert biologists. So you can ask people and get involved in the community.
It's also very easy to create and get involved in citizen science projects from within the app -- whether you simply want to share your observations or assist researchers and help the greater purpose of science.
Ultimately, I wouldn't recommend iNaturalist as the first app to get started with, but rather as an app if you really want to fuel your curiosity and feed your inner naturalist. It's really a wonderful app, though for the purpose of identifying plants, it has tough competition.
Leafsnap does pretty much what it says: it identifies trees and other plants based on leaf shape. It's remarkably good on some species, but fared less well on others we tried it on. Still, its average accuracy is up there with the best. Often, even when it doesn't guess the exact species, it usually lists it along with a few alternatives or related plants. The app claims to have an accuracy of 95%, but that's probably only true if the picture is really good and telling.
The app is also easy and straightforward to use. It's also good with mushrooms and cacti, and there's no real downside to it. It's just whether it's good enough or better than PlantNet -- and of that, I'm not exactly sure. Still, the app definitely deserves to be up there and you're not really going wrong by starting with it.
Still, when it comes to the most easy-to-use app, it's one that's not even designed for identifying plants. Yep, the most straightforward of them by far is Google Lens. Lens is actually a multipurpose tool -- it can, among others, translate from one language to another or detect objects. But it's also remarkably good at identifying plants, and considering that that's not nearly its main purpose, it's pretty impressive.
All you need to do is snap a photo of something and use Lens on it, or alternatively, open Lens and take a photo. The app draws from Google's insanely large database and algorithms, and it doesn't necessarily need the leaf: sometimes, it actually performs better if you snap a pic of a tree's bark or other distinctive features; or you could do both.
Google Lens also suggests other alternatives and you can browse the photos and judge for yourself if the first suggested option is the correct one (from our experiments, sometimes it was not, but the correct one was usually included in the list of suggestions
Ultimately, it's hard to draw a line and say which app performs better. That likely depends on your geographical location and what types of plants you're trying it on. They all performed very well, but not perfectly, and the way you use them also seems to matter a lot. Try to take a clear photo on a clear background, and don't just use it on the leaf or flower -- try different parts of the plants and see what you get. Most importantly, don't forget to experiment and have fun with it.
These are not the only app of its kind - I was surprised to see there's quite a number of apps that helps you identify flowers and trees. So, now you can go out and identify that rosebush... or is it a dahlia?
This article was edited to include references to other plant-identifying apps. Initially, it only contained a mention of PlantNet.