Plant ID Just Got Easier

By Steve Swenson, Ecologist, Aldo Leopold Foundation

I’ll be the first to admit, using plant ID keys isn’t what I do for fun. It’s like trying to navigate a map without knowing your destination.

Screen shot of online plant identification tool.
A screen shot of Discover Life’s online wildflower identification guide.

When I first learned to identify plants, wildflower enthusiasts carried paper field guides into the field. The procedure went something like this: Upon finding a plant you didn’t know, you would first take a seat (akin to “taking bad news sitting down”), and then answer questions about the specimen.

The first few questions you answer easily, but that only makes arriving at the inevitable, unanswerable question more maddening.

You need flower color? The petals are gone. You need leaf characteristics? The foliage is dried or missing. Frustration escorts you out of the woods.

But no longer.

The organization has harnessed the power of electronics to create a faceted search engine called IDnature guides, or as I call it, a really useful thing.

Now, I’m not generally a great believer in electronic solutions. I’m the father of two young boys whom snuggle into bed with tablets instead of teddy bears. My anti-electronic rants have become both repetitive and ineffective. But my relationship to electronics changed when I realized the content is key.

Here is how my plant ID process works now: Put in any characteristic(s) you can confidently identify on your specimen: petal number, petal color, leaf shape, or other. It gets checked and by process of elimination, returns a list of potential positive IDs. The more characteristics you add, the shorter the potential list gets. It’s really cool. But if the boys ask, I’ll deny everything.