Not so good in the field . . .

I have a rather embarrassing confession to make. Although I have degrees in botany, I’m not very good at all at identifying plants in the field. It’s just not something that has ever come easily. But I do know how to identify different species. More of that later.

Birds are a different kettle of fish altogether (says he, mixing his metaphors). I have little difficulty in identifying most of the species I come across. Maybe that’s because I’ve had an interest in bird watching since I was a small boy.

I came late to botany, however. It wasn’t until I was studying for my university entrance exams (known here in the UK as the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level exams) that I realized that botany was the degree course for me, something I achieved at the University of Southampton (in a combined honors degree with geography) for three years from 1967.

Les Watson

During that first year, and on a field trip to the west of Ireland, we systematically studied the different families of flowering plants, under the careful guidance of fellow Leekensian¹ Les Watson who was a lecturer in plant taxonomy at Southampton.

But after graduation, my interest in all things botanical turned to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and that became my research interest for the next 40 years, focusing on potatoes in South and Central America during the 1970s, on potatoes and grain legumes when I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, and then rice after I joined the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1991 up to my retirement in 2010.

With my Birmingham PhD supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, identifying potato varieties in the field genebank of the International Potato Center in Peru in 1974, and collecting wild species in the Andes northeast of Lima in March 1975.


So I’ve never been much focused on field botany, and unlike many amateur botanists and naturalists, didn’t have much enthusiasm for naming all the plants I came across. It’s a bit ironic really because in 1981 when I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in plant biology, I was ‘asked’ to contribute to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy. My contributions had less to do with identifying and studying the various plant families per se than understanding how and why variation in plant species comes about, and how variation patterns are treated in formal taxonomy.

In recent months, however, my interest has turned to plant identification. Since Steph and I moved to the northeast of England last October, I have tried to get out for a walk every day, a minimum of two miles, weather permitting. We have discovered the fantastic waggonways that crisscross Tyneside, the remnants of a busy coal mining industry that opened up in the nineteenth century and eventually met its demise in the second half of the last century. The waggonways are the routes of the railway lines that carried coal from the mines to quays (or staiths as they were known locally) on the River Tyne from where it was shipped all over the world.

Nowadays the waggonways are a haven for wildlife, and a lush abundance of plant species almost too numerous to count. They have become important (vital even) biodiversity corridors connecting different habitats across Newcastle and into the surrounding Northumberland landscape.

And, as I walking along the Cramlington Waggonway recently close to home on my way to the Silverlink Biodiversity Park (developed on a former coal waste tip), I was struck about how many of the plants I could not identify, although many were familiar. But I did want to know their names.

Now, as part of my student training in botany, I learnt how to use a flora, which is a list of all the species known to grown in a particular area or region. For the UK, the most comprehensive flora was the Flora of the British Isles, by Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, first published in 1952, and still in print today after several editions and revisions, but supplanted to some extent perhaps by Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles, first published in 1991 and now in its 4th edition.

The essential thing about these floras is that they have a key to help you identify plants.

However, recognizing many of the plant families or genera as I can, I don’t have to start at the beginning of a key, but can jump to a particular family or genus to narrow down my search for the correct identity.


But my quest to identify plants has been made a whole lot easier. I follow lots of botanical related feeds on Twitter, and a couple of weeks ago, I came across one tweet referring to a plant identification site called Pl@ntNet, for which there is an app for use of mobile phones and the like. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Essentially, you upload an image to the site, and it comes back with a probability (%) of it being a particular species, but also suggesting other candidates albeit at a lower probability.

So what is Pl@ntNet? On its website, it states that Pl@ntNet is a citizen science project available as an app that helps you identify plants thanks to your pictures. This project is part of the Floris’Tic initiative, which aims to promote scientific, technical and industrial culture in plant sciences. For this, it relies on a consortium of complementary expertise in Botany, IT and Project Animation.

Pl@ntNet is a French project under the Agropolis Foundation initiated in 2009 with the objective of developing new forms of identification, sharing and accumulation of data on plants. The mobile application allows you to take photos of a plant, and to compare these photos with those of an expertly-validated and dynamically updated image base, so as to facilitate the identification of a plant. The application, with more than a million downloads, and several thousand daily users demonstrates the keen interest of the general public and the educational world for this type of technology, and a thirst for knowledge about the plants around us. This initiative illustrates the great motivation of the teams involved to produce and disseminate new forms of access to knowledge in the field of botany.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I decided to give it a whirl. Like all projects of this type, it depends on expert feedback, so there is a large database of photos of correctly identified species, and these are also cataloged into the floras from different parts of the world, such as Western Europe or Costa Rica, for example. In fact there are 35 subcategories to narrow down your selection. And thousands upon thousands of images of flowers, leaves, habit and habitat, fruits and the like.

So I started with a plant I did know to test how the app worked and its accuracy. I came across a patch of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum L., Geraniaceae) on the sand dunes close to home. I took a closeup of the flowers and submitted it to Pl@ntNet there and then. Within seconds, a result came back: bloody cranesbill, 95%!

On a walk last week in Northumberland, I saw a daisy-like plant that looked familiar. I’d seen something similar growing at Biddulph Grange (a National Trust property in North Staffordshire some years back). Again, within seconds, Pl@ntNet suggested Doronicum pardalianches L, Asteraceae, commonly known as giant leopard’s-bane), but with only a 56% certainty based on the flowers. So I took another photo, of the leaves this time, and Pl@ntNet again proposed the same species, with 80% certainty. So I’m pretty confident that this was indeed giant leopard’s-bane.

I must say how impressed I am with this app. As I take my smartphone with me on all my walks, Pl@ntNet will be part of my armory to identify wildlife, along with my binoculars and camera. It really is worth having a go. The app is a little memory hungry at 231 MB, but already I’m finding that my field botany is improving, and it’s so much fun having at least an indication there and then of a species identity that can be verified later on with reference to a flora, should the app not give a high identification value.

Maybe, one day, I’ll even become a competent field botanist. Although that might be stretching things a little too far.


¹ A native of Leek, a small market town in North Staffordshire where I grew up.