Learning to See and Identify Plants with Alan Weakley

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Intro: If you’ve ever found a plant that you didn’t recognize and wanted to know what it was, then this episode is for you. We talk about learning to observe plants, how to identify plants, why that’s important, and some exciting new tools that are available to help us better recognize and appreciate the diversity of plants around us.

Shannon: Hi Everyone! Before we get started, I want to thank all of my supporters on Patreon. Their monthly donations help make Backyard Ecology possible.

If you would like to join them, you can do so for less than the cost of a cup of coffee or a meal at your favorite fast food place. I’ll have links in the show notes for the Backyard Ecology Patreon Page, blog, YouTube channel, and email list.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Alan Weakley. Alan is the director of the University of North Carolina’s Herbarium, which is located at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. He is also the author of the Flora of the Southeastern US and the newly released FloraQuest app.

Hi, Alan, welcome to Backyard Ecology. Thank you for talking with us today.

Alan: Hi, Shannon. It’s great to be here and I look forward to talking with you and your audience.

Shannon: And I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation because plant identification and resources to help people identify plants are topics that I am constantly getting asked about. So, I think this is going to be a very helpful conversation for many of our listeners.

Alan: That’s great. It is a challenging subject and there are a lot of new ways to identify plants. Many of them are not that well known to people, yet. So, it’s great to talk about this and talk about ways people can become more familiar with the natural world around them.

Shannon: And before we get started, can you tell everyone just a little bit about what you do and how you got interested in botany?

Alan: Sure. So, I am director of the UNC Herbarium. A lot of people don’t know what an herbarium is. It doesn’t have much to do with rosemary time, parsley, and oregano. An herbarium is basically a museum, filled with specimens of plants. So it’s a, plant museum.

We’re probably more familiar with the idea of a museum that’s filled with dinosaur bones or things like that. But, an herbarium is filled with specimens of plants and they are pressed and dried and then glued onto sheets of paper. Also on the sheet of paper is information about where that plant was collected.

Herbaria serve as kind of a basic resource for doing research on plants for lots of different purposes. Understanding what they are, what their taxonomy is, how many species of plants there are. Understanding which of those species might be rare, which ones are common, which ones are distributed in a particular area. What plants might have medicinal uses or other kinds of uses.

Herbaria are also used as a resource for plant identification. If you collect a plant or see a plant that you’re not sure what it is, if you press a specimen of it and bring it to an herbarium, you can compare it against already identified specimens and see whether it matches. That’s not a terribly practical way to identify plants, but it is one of the purposes of herbaria.

Herbaria have been around for about 500 years. They began to be made in Europe, in Italy and other countries of Europe, about 500 years ago. And this very simple technology of drying plants, preserving them in that way, has proved to be a great way to save specimens of plants.

So, we can look at a specimen of a plant that was collected 300 or 400 years ago. We can see the hairs on the stem. We can dissect the flower. We can even get DNA out of old specimens of plants to study the genetics of the species. And so, this kind of very simple, almost primitive, technology has turned out to be a great resource for understanding the plant life around us.

The UNC Herbarium is the largest collection of plants for the southeastern United States. We have specimens from all over the world, but our focus is on the flora of the southeastern United States. We have a total of about 800,000, specimens stored carefully, maintained archivally, sorted and databased. So that that information is readily available to, researchers, the public, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, farmers, doctors, etc.

So, that’s what an herbarium is. I, direct the UNC Herbarium and do a variety of other things associated with UNC and associated with the North Carolina Botanical Garden. I teach university courses and oversee graduate students. I teach public education outreach courses, and I work on Floras.

Floras are sort of traditionally the way in which all of the miscellaneous research that gets done on plants gets compiled into a useful format that is broadly useful to somebody who isn’t a PhD botanist. Somebody who is interested in plants, but who isn’t going to be looking up obscure journal articles to get information.

Shannon: Very interesting. So, how did you get interested in botany? What brought you to plants?

Alan: So, how I got interested in botany… I grew up in a family that had a lot of interest in natural history. My mom and my dad, my grandmother, my aunt, my uncle, sort of everybody in my family was pretty interested in natural history. They all grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in a pretty rural setting.

Being outdoors was an everyday thing. You were surrounded by plants. You went fishing – partly for fun, but partly for the food. And so I grew up having plants pointed out to me, and gardening with native plants, and things like that. But as a kid I was probably more interested in dinosaurs, birds, snakes, spiders – animals more than plants. But I got exposed to all of the above. Of course, dinosaurs, not in person. But, like a lot of six or seven year old boys, or kids in general, I thought dinosaurs were really cool.

I think that was the beginning, but I didn’t really know whether I was going to become a professional involved with natural history sciences. I had a lot of other interests as well. But, I came to school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where I now work, back when I was 17. And I sort of fell into a group of students and some influential professors that kind of pushed me towards botany and plant ecology.

I’ve been doing that professionally sort of ever since. And it’s been a great run. It’s been a lot of fun. And it’s sort of a never-ending subject. You’re not ever going to get bored.

Shannon: Yes. And I think you can say that about pretty much. Any of the natural history fields too. I mean, there’s always never ending subjects. You’re never going to get bored, especially when you’ve got everybody working on different topics and then you like to play in different fields and bounce back and forth. I mean, it’s all complicated and fun and interesting.

Alan: Well, I always thought so. And, I think there are a lot of people who do, and and probably more who ought to, which does sort of bring us to the Floras and apps and things like that.

I think we’re at kind of a critical stage in society where a lot less of the population grew up on a farm or in a rural area, or spends a lot of time outside in the woods or the meadows or the prairies. And, I think, in a way, we need to make an extra effort to make sure that people are exposed to and know about and hopefully learn to love the real world around them.

The real world was here before we, humans, started building highways and shopping centers and office buildings and grocery stores. And there’s nothing wrong with all those. But, there is the real world that is still out there that I think fewer and fewer people venture out into.

There was an influential book published, I guess a couple decades ago now, called Last Child in the Woods. And I think about that kind of a lot. We’re so focused nowadays on what’s on our smartphone and we kind of drive from our house to our work or school and drive to the grocery store. We’re not really out in nature very much.

And, it’s easy for us to sort of lose track of the fact that the natural world around us is still fundamental and basic. It still supports our lives. Those plants are pumping out the oxygen that we breathe. They’re cleaning our water. They’re providing habitat for birds that we like to hear singing. They’re providing pollen and nectar for the insects that pollinate, not only the wild plants around us, but our crop plants and things like that. So yeah, I think it’s important for us to emphasize getting to know nature.

Shannon: Yes, I very much agree with that. And it’s hard to believe Last Child in the Woods was a couple of decades ago. That makes me feel old.

But yeah, being able to identify things, whether it’s the plants or just any sort of animal… I mean, there’s all kinds of psychological research that shows that we care about things more, or people more, when we know their names. And so really, like you said, being able to start to know what it is that we’re looking at is a really big first step.

Plus, I think we all have the tendency to think about things that we see every day as being common and normal, and perhaps a little boring compared to things that we don’t see every day which are more rare to us. But that’s not necessarily the case, especially when it comes to plants. I’ve heard so many cases in recent years where a plant ended up being rare or uncommon that was growing in somebody’s yard or just down the street or on the side of the road where they drove by and saw it every day. But if we don’t know what it is, then we never know that.

Alan: Well, Shannon, that’s absolutely true. And one of the things I’ve been able to do through my career is introduce people to a rare plant that occurs on their land, on their property, in their backyard – sometimes literally.

I used to work for a state agency that surveyed natural areas and so forth. So, we would contact a property owner and ask for their permission to look for a rare species that might be on their land. Then if we found it, or well, whether we found it or not, we’d get back in touch with them. A lot of times that was a matter of simply, walking back up to their house, knocking on the door, and saying, “Hey, guess what? We found it.”

The general reaction of people was almost always a reaction of kind of pride and often surprise. It’s like, “What? There’s a plant in my backyard that only grows in three counties? And it’s rare? What can I do to help? What can I do to help preserve it?”

I think sometimes nowadays there’s a tendency to fear that, “Oh, having a rare plant or a rare animal. That’s going to mean the government is going to swoop in and take away my land,” or something like that. And that’s not really true. It’s great to have people step up and say, “You know I’d like to do something on my property to help this be there for my kids and my kids’ kids.”

So, stewardship of the land, appreciation and pride in one’s natural heritage – the sort of heritage of the forests and fields and plants and animals that are around you – is something we need more of.

Shannon: Definitely. So, if someone’s just getting interested in plants and wanting to know what they’re seeing, what they’re looking at, where do they get started?
What do you recommend they do to start with?

Alan: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s not necessarily a totally easy answer for that. So, let me say a few things and then I might go off in a different direction about it as well. But to me one of the most basic things, this is not a tool or a book or anything. It’s actually a change in attitude.

I think the first step is almost to change one’s attitude. That is there’s a tendency to sort of see plants around us as just kind of this green backdrop. You know it’s kind of the green wall that we walk past or drive past or whatever. We don’t tend to see individual trees, or we don’t tend to see different kinds of trees or wildflowers. We just sort of see a massive green.

So, I think the first step is learning to observe and learning to recognize that there’s a lot of diversity out there. When I teach plant identification to kids, or college students, or 70 year olds, one of the things that I sometimes do is just bring in the leaves of four or five different species of oak tree.

I’ll spread the leaves out and I’ll say, “Okay. Let’s assume that you’re beginning botanists. You don’t have any training. You don’t know a lot of fancy terms for different parts of a plant. But let’s just look at these leaves and use your powers of observation. Tell me what you see. What do you see that might differentiate this leaf, from this leaf, from this leaf? What do you see that looks different?”

I mean that’s just kind of the most basic level. What do you see that looks different? I always find it really gratifying that people when they’re challenged to do so, when they’re given the opportunity to look, they look. They make really good observations. They see really interesting things.

They say, “Oh well, that one has round lobes and that one has pointy lobes. Or that one doesn’t really have lobes at all but this one does. Or that one has a short stalk of the leaf and the other one has a longer stalk. Or that one’s dark green and that’s medium green, or that one is green and that one’s kind of bluish. Or that one is smooth – it feels like metal or glass when I rub my finger over it. But this other one feels like it’s fuzzy or furry or something when I rub my finger over it.” And that’s really half the battle – just looking. Observing a little bit critically of what is different about this versus that.

A botany teacher that I had, Jim Massey, he liked to describe it as learning to observe. He would tell a story about a student of his who went home in the summer after taking a course about plant identification. And she came back to him in the fall and knocked on his door and said, “Dr. Massey, I went home, and everything was different. I just saw all these things that I didn’t even know were there. You know, you taught me to see!” He found that so gratifying and an indication that he had succeeded in what he was trying to teach.

So, I think that that’s really the first step is just looking closely at plants beyond them just being that green stuff out there. But there are some, sort of basic things that one needs to learn to observe to identify plants. There are wildflower guides that do a pretty good job of getting you started on that. We did a guide for Timber Press called Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast that covered about eight states from New Jersey down to Georgia and inland to West Virginia. There are a series of books that now cover most of the country done in the same series by Timber Press: Wildflowers of New England, Wildflowers of Texas, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, etc..

All of those books are based on learning to observe about six or seven basic features of a plant to narrow down your options. A lot of the oldest wildflower guides, the first wildflower guides that I encountered when I was a kid like the Peterson Wildflower Guide to the Northeast, it just sort had groups by flower color and that was pretty much it. So, if you had a pink flower, you turned to the section of pink flowers and you had like a hundred pages of pink flowers to flip through.

That wasn’t really a very pleasing or effective way to identify plants. So, this new generation of wildflower guides, they have lots of pictures. They’re very visual and pictorial like the old wildflower guides. But in addition to that, they ask you to, and teach you how to, observe some fairly basic features.

So, okay this is a wildflower and the flowers are pink. But does it have alternate or opposite or whorled leaves? Do the leaves have a smooth margin or do they have a jagged margin? Are the leaves compound divided or simple? And are the leaves on the stem or are the leaves at the base of the plant or both?

Easy things to observe that don’t require a lot of fancy terminology or a hand lens or a microscope. Things that anybody can teach themselves how to observe. And once you observe those sort of basic set of things, then you can narrow down your options a lot more than a hundred pages of pink flowers.

Then you’re to the pink flowers with opposite leaves that are not toothed. And that might be only two or three pages. I think that’s a really valuable way to step into learning how to identify plants and learning some basic things that you can build on to increase your skills as you go forward.

A new way to identify plants that has emerged is artificial intelligence. A lot of people now do that. They have an app on their phone or they just use features that are in Android or Apple technology. But some of the apps are things like iNaturalist or Seek or Picture This.

Essentially, you take a picture of a plant and the app compares that picture to a large set of other pictures of plants that have been identified. And it uses artificial intelligence, it uses computer learning, to compare your picture to those other pictures and say, “Yeah it looks like these other pictures that are all this species.” Or oftentimes it may not be very sure and it’ll say, “We think it’s one of these 10 things.”

I find I use those apps. I use iNaturalist, which is my favorite of them. I use it for plants and I use it for other groups that I’m not as expert in. And I think that’s a really helpful technology. The thing that I think is not ideal about it is that it’s really easy to not actually learn very much from doing that.

It’s really easy to just take a picture and you get an answer. You don’t really know whether the answer is right or wrong, but you got an answer. And you walk away, you know, having gotten an answer. But did you learn to observe? It was your phone, your picture, that did the observing. You can do that in a way that doesn’t actually engage your brain.

You can also do it in a way that does engage your brain and follow up on it. But I think the temptation is just to kind of accept the answer and move on. So, what I want to talk about in this conversation is other ways to learn to identify plants to enhance one’s knowledge and appreciation of the plants around us in ways that I think sort of build your skill and serve as a learning tool, maybe more than some of the point and shoot ID approaches.

Shannon: Yes exactly. And that’s always been one of my reasons why I never really used the plant ID apps that are out there. There’s always been two things. One if you don’t know what it is, how do you know if the answer you’re getting is right or wrong? Because there’s no guarantees.

Two, I mean, yes, sometimes I just want to know “What’s that pretty flower?” Give me the answer and let me move on. But usually, I’m wanting to know a little bit more. I want to interact with it more. And like you said go deeper – do that deeper observation. So that next time, I don’t have to use the app. Or if I run into a cousin of the plant, something in the same genus or the same family, I can look at it. And I might not know what it is to species, but I can say “Oh, this is a milkweed of some sort,” or something like that, and I know something about it.

Whereas with the just snap a picture apps I don’t get that because I just don’t think that deeply about it. And that’s coming from somebody that’s really interested in this stuff. I still fall into the trap of, “Okay, yeah, that’s the answer. Let me move on.”

Alan: So, I just want to emphasize that I don’t denigrate or don’t regard as bad the fact that those apps are out there. I think it’s great that they are. I think they are really helpful and there’s definitely a place for them in part of the ecosystem of plant identification and animal identification.

But they do have their limitations, and I think they’re less likely to lead one to sort of learn more about, you know, “Oh, I now know how to recognize that genus or that plant family.” Or what you said that “I’m not sure what that is, but I know what it’s related to” or “I have an idea generally of what it is.”

Shannon: Exactly. I’m not saying they’re bad either. I definitely hope nobody ever takes it as that because they’re a necessary first step for a lot of people. They are an introduction. It’s just I never used them because they didn’t fit my purposes. That doesn’t mean, like you said, that they’re bad or there’s anything wrong with them. It’s just that was my personal thing. Other people are in other places in their journeys and that’s great.

Alan: So, one of the things that we are doing as part of the Southeastern Flora Project at the North Carolina Botanical Garden is we’re developing a Flora that covers all or parts of 25 states across the southeast.

And it’s kind of a broad definition of the Southeast that’s really related to the distributions of plants. So, we go all the way up to New Jersey. The New Jersey Pine Barrens is really a very southeastern kind of place. Most of the species that are there in the New Jersey Pine Barrens sort of face south. They’re species you might also find in North Carolina or Florida more than species that you would find in Maine or Canada. And so, this broad region west to Oklahoma and Texas, south to Florida, and up to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

We’re focusing on all the plants that grow outside of cultivation in that area. That includes our native flora, but it also includes plants that came from somewhere else. From South America or Europe or Asia and have naturalized and become part of the flora that you can encounter in your backyard or even in a national park or state park walking along a trail.

That’s a total of about 11,000 species. A lot of people are maybe surprised by that diversity. We have a tremendous diversity of plants in the southeastern United States. It’s really a center of plant diversity for the temperate parts of the world.

And we are developing the Flora in a database. The basic platform is we develop the information in a database and then we can produce products in different platforms. We can produce apps. We can produce, sort of, fancy professional floras. We can produce wildflower guides. And it’s all based on the same information.

But we have different audiences in mind with those different kinds of products. Our sort of little saying is that we want to put the hay where the horses can get it and we want that to be every kind of horse.

Some people are only ever going to identify plants using a wildflower guide that’s sort of small, that has a lot of pictures, that may not have every species in it but that has them all illustrated, has a pretty simple means of identifying the plants by things like flower color and some of those other things that I mentioned like whether the leaves are opposite or alternate or compound or simple So, that’s one audience. And that’s an audience that we love to serve and want to serve.

There’s another set of people who want to know lots of details about every species. They want to be able to key out using a dichotomous key one of the 293 species of sedge, of Carex. And that’s going to probably require a dissecting scope and a hand lens and so forth. So, for them we are publishing in PDF, and sometimes in paper form, more professional floras. The sort of big tome compendium of lots and lots of information.

And then there are also people, and increasingly I think people in their twenties or thirties, who aren’t going to use a book at all. If they can’t get to the information via an app something on their phone or a tablet, they’re probably not going to seek out the information at all. Using that same platform of data and information on the plants of the Southeast, we’re developing apps – both installable apps and also websites – that one can use to identify plants.

And we recognize that each of those different platforms probably is its own audience, with some overlap not a hundred percent different. But if you want to know about how to identify plants in the southeastern U.S., we want to help you. And we want to help you in whatever format whatever platform, whatever level of detail you want.

Frankly, we also hope that if you start with one of the simpler formats and simpler levels of information, we hope that you’re going to get bit by the bug and get fascinated by it. And work your way into some of the more detailed information and things that require, you know, harder work. But we want plant identification to be easy. We want it to be sophisticated. We want the best scientific information out there. And that’s for a whole variety of reasons.

If you live on a suburban lot of a half an acre to an acre and you’ve got a lawn on the front and in the back it goes back into some woods, we want you to be interested in what’s in those woods. To be able to go back there and identify the plants that are on the back edge of your property. If you go hiking on a green way or a trail in a local county park or state park we want you to be interested in and be able to learn about the plants that are there.

Another motivation for developing all this information and putting it out there is there’s an increasing field of citizen science or community science. And that is people who may not have very much scientific training, they’re not researchers or whatever, but they’re interested in the plants and animals around them and they can make observations and gather data that is helpful to scientists, to land managers, and so forth about what is out there.

One can learn to recognize a rare species. One can learn to understand its habitat and where you might find it. And you can go out and find new populations of rare species and let land managers know about those. And that can help conserve rare species populations.

And then the professional land managers themselves. You know, a park ranger or somebody who works on a wildlife resources property and is applying management techniques like prescribed burning or selective timber harvest or so forth. They also need to know what’s out there on the property that their management is impacting. If they know that, they can design the management to benefit declining species of birds, like quail, or declining species of plants, like purple cone flowers and things like that.

Information is power. Information is valuable. And we want to provide tools to put that in the hands of anybody and everybody.

Shannon: And that’s one of the things I love too about the work you’re doing. Because you do take all of this very rigorous, very detailed information, and make it so accessible in so many different formats. You really do meet people where they’re at, wherever they may be at, in the process and the journey of learning what’s around them. Learning these plants and learning how to see and observe.

Alan: Well, that’s the goal. I’m pretty confident that we’re doing well at it, but you know we can always do better. So, we’re continuing to innovate.

We’ve released the first of five apps that will cover the southeastern United States. The apps are called FloraQuest and you can get them at the iOS App Store or Google Play. And these apps are lavishly illustrated.

The first app covers the area from Virginia and Kentucky northwards, so what we call the FloraQuest Northern Tier. The second app, that will be released in the next year, will cover the Carolinas in Georgia. Then we’ll continue with the final three apps that we’ll cover. One will cover Florida alone. One will cover Tennessee Alabama and Mississippi. And then the last app that we plan to put out will be covering the area of the southeast west of the Mississippi River – Louisiana, Arkansas, southern Missouri, eastern and central Oklahoma, and eastern Texas.

Shannon: So, this is a really big project and it sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I’m assuming that you’re not doing this by yourself. I’m assuming that you’ve got a team. Can you tell us a little bit about who that team’s made up of and a little bit about them?

Alan: So I’m the head of the project and then I have a botanist, Scott Ward, working with me and a data scientist, Michael Lee. And then another botanist, Derek Poindexter, and a contract botanist, Chris Ludwig, who is based in Virginia. And then critically, our app developer Katie Gibson at High Country Apps in Bozeman, Montana. And so that’s the sort of core team.

It has to be said that it really takes a village. We have literally hundreds of other collaborators and folks who provide help in developing this resource. Local experts out around the region and all the states. Taxonomic experts who have contributed some of the treatments and so forth. But it’s that core team that’s kind of putting together the Floras and the apps from this diversity of information available.

Shannon: And having that team I’m sure is so helpful. Because it’s really hard for one person to do everything. One person can’t do everything on their own so it’s great having that.

Alan: I originally started working on this flora about 35 years ago and pretty much all by myself. And it is a great thing to now have a team working on it. So yep, I call it the dream team. It’s a great bunch.

Shannon: That’s awesome.

Alan: So, this gets into different platforms and what information you can put in what way. So, sophisticated botanical floras tend to be big fat tomes that are a 1,000 or 1,500 pages long. They’re heavy to carry around. Many of them have no illustrations whatsoever, so it’s all words.

In the app that we just released for the Northern Tier we have 20,000 photographs of the 5,700 plant species. And those photographs have been chosen to illustrate what the plant looks like in flower, what it looks like in fruit, what the leaves look like, what this characteristic that’s helpful to identify that species from another species. You get a photograph of that and then it has several different ways to identify plants using the app.

We do not yet have, and may never have, the AI style identification in it. But we have the traditional dichotomous keys that you might find in a professional manual. Those are really necessary for identifying some groups of plants that have more technical characteristics that aren’t that readily observable. Grasses and sedges would be examples.

But we’ve also tried to make those dichotomous keys as easy to use as possible. For instance, any botanical term that’s used in the key like “leaves hirsute.” You read that and you say “What does hirsute mean?” Well, if you hover over the word, the glossary definition of hirsute will pop up.

So, rather than having to page to the back of the flora to find the glossary, look up the word, find your place back to where you were in the book, and then five words later you hit another one that you have to look up. It’s easier to access that information.

But the ID tool that we have programmed into FloraQuest that we’re most proud of is what we call the graphic key. And the graphic key basically asks you first to put your plant in one of about a dozen basic groups. And we help you do that accurately.

The basic groups might be things like orchids, non-orchid monocot wildflowers, dicot wildflowers, broad leaved woody plants, needle leaved woody plants or conifers, ferns. So categories like that, that if you don’t know them already you can learn to put your plant into one of those groups

So, in the Northern Tier app they’re 5,700 species to start with. Maybe you say, “Okay this is a tree.” Once you select the group tree, you’re already down to about 1,300 species. And then there are a series of questions for that group that are customized to that group. That direct you to look at various aspects of the plant and answer a question.

If you can’t answer the question you just skip it. So, you’re not constrained to have to answer something. So, let’s say you’re looking at a tree and there are questions about its flowers and you don’t see any flowers. Well, that’s fine.

But you can see the leaves and you can see that the leaves are opposite in arrangement. They’re as wide as they are long. They’re lobed. The lobes have teeth, are serrated or toothy on the margin. And it’s a tree rather than a shrub. Each time you answer one of those questions, the app is sorting through the database that’s loaded as part of the app.

And it’s saying, “Oh, okay well, opposite leaves rather than 1,300 possibilities, now you’re down to 200. Lobed. You’re now down to 25. Lobed and also toothy, now you’re down to eight possibilities.” And when you get it down to a manageable number you can push the button on the app that says “Show” and it gives you the eight species that it thinks it’s one of.

You can sort through those and look at each one and look at pictures and say, “Yeah it’s not that. No not that one. Oh, wow, that looks really good. Let me see whether it could be that. I’m going to look at more pictures. Yeah, that really looks like what it is.” And then you can look at other information like is it in the right kind of habitat that that species is expected to be in?

I didn’t mention, it also sorts by your location. So, if you have that app that covers those eight or nine states but you’re in the Piedmont of Maryland you can select the “Piedmont Maryland” and it will exclude species that are only in Illinois or only in the coastal plain of New Jersey.

Or rather than going to manually look at those eight different species the other option that you have is you can push a separate button that will create an on-the-fly key or decision tree to identify those eight species. So, it’ll actually direct you to, “Okay, here’s an A versus B choice that will eliminate some of those options.” You choose A, and the B options are eliminated. Then it gives you another A versus B choice and you choose it and you get an answer.

So, it’s a really effective way for people to go from thousands of species to just a few to a correct identification. And in the process of doing so learn a lot about the classification of the plants and the habitats of them. So once you get to the species id, you know what family it’s in and you know what its habitats are. You can click on them and you can look at a range map that shows where it’s distributed. And you’re like, “Oh wow. I’m near the southern end of the distribution of that plant. Isn’t that interesting? Well, it sort of makes sense. I’m up at high elevation. So, it makes sense that maybe it’s a species that’s more common up in New England.”

So yeah, we’re really excited about that kind of innovative approach to identification. Having really sophisticated information available for you about the flora of that region, but also having kind of a simplified, easier way to identify the plant that also engages your brain and teaches you things about the plant.

Shannon: And I absolutely love that feature because to me it combines the best of both worlds. I’ve got all of the scientific rigor and all of the plants, all the species together in this one little thing that I’m carrying around with me anyway – my phone. And I can use it like a field guide where I can just go through it very quickly without having to remember what all the botanical jargon is and definitions. Like you said having to flip back and forth to the dictionary a million times to figure it out. I can very easily just boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, go through and classify what I know. Then start looking at it in more detail from there.

And really the app, the way you’ve got the decision tree set up, is doing what we do as botanist all the time anyway. “Oh, I’m in this state. Or I’m in a swamp. So I can forget about everything else that doesn’t fit that state or that location. And it’s discarding the things as we go along. It really simplifies things but still engages you. Yeah I love it.

Alan: As part of the decision tree you can also put in a genus. You can set the app to be sorted by common names or scientific names. So, you might say, “Oh that looks like a maple to me.” Or if you’re more botanically oriented you might say, “Oh that looks like the genus Acer.”

But either way you can say, “Okay, I’m just going to start with the maples.” And so, you can enter that in as a further sorting feature that’ll automatically get you down to quite a small number of species. So, it’s also very flexible in the way that you can use it to identify plants.

There are a lot of other great features about it too. You can read up on a plant family or a plant genus. You can find out that the genus Asclepias, the milkweed genus, has this number of species that are distributed in this way around the world. You can look at the other species of milkweed that are in your region, etc.

There’s also sections for places to botanize. We worked with local experts in each state to pick a set of locations that show the diversity of that state. So, for Virginia let’s say, they’re not all up in the mountains. They’re not all Shenandoah National Park and mountain places.

You’ve got also locations in the Piedmont where people might think, “Ah, there’s nothing really interesting to go see in the Piedmont.” Well, there are places that are really interesting to see and plants that are great to see in the Piedmont. So, it might have 5 or 10 locations from the Coastal Plain, and 5 or 6 from the Piedmont, and 5 from the mountains.

A lot of people who are interested in natural history they find this section on places to botanize places, to go see plants, and they view it as kind of, “Oh that’s a bucket list for me. I’m going to go to every one of those and see the diversity of my state.”

So that takes us back again to sort of learning to appreciate our natural heritage. The special diversity that we have in each individual location around us that is unique. What you find in the Coastal Plain of Virginia, isn’t what you find in the mountains, and it’s not what you’d see in Kansas or Maine or Florida or Texas. Every place has its own unique diversity of plants around it that we can learn to appreciate and recognize.

Shannon: Yes, I love that. Okay, now I’ve got a question for you. Let’s say I found a plant and I don’t know what it is. So, I pull out my phone. Pull up the FloraQuest app and I start going through it. And it doesn’t match anything that I find there.

Now, what? Does that automatically mean I made a mistake? Are all the species in the app? What….?

Alan: Yeah, so all the species are in the app that we know about. It is important for us to recognize that our knowledge is not perfect. And so sometimes people do find totally new species. Sometimes people do find a species in a new place that we didn’t know it was before. So that is a possibility.

You can widen your search. If you’re in the Piedmont of Maryland, maybe you might say, “Okay I’m going to click on all the species that are in the Piedmont of Maryland, but also the Coastal Plain, or mountains, and also the Piedmont of Virginia, and the Piedmont of Maryland and Pennsylvania.” So, you might sort of cast your net a little more broadly.

But in most cases, it may mean that you did make a mistake somewhere. And we do also have some guidance about that. You know, sometimes even something like flower color may be hard to select. It may be purplish and you’re not sure whether it ought to be more in the red group or in the blue group.

If it’s really ambiguous, we’ve also tried to code it both ways so that either choice you make will work to find that species. So we’ve sort of coded things to not be biased against what might not be the absolutely perfect or right choice, but is a reasonable choice to have made. So those are a couple of answers to that.

You know, we think it’s a little bit unlikely that out of 5,700 species that the species is not in the app, but it might be missing.

Shannon: Yeah, that was kind of what I was getting at too, is that yes probably 90% plus of the time, it means I made a mistake on it. And that happens no matter what you’re looking at. I mean, working with the dichotomous keys, you make mistakes because you pick the wrong choice sometimes, or looking at a field guide.

I love the fact that with the app it’s got all of the known options in there. But then we have times when there’s new species to science that just haven’t been identified or range expansions. So, you didn’t know it was there. I mean it happens sometimes, but that’s not the majority of the time.

Alan: We live in a time of changing climates in the world and we keep on bringing new species over from China or England or Brazil that find good conditions and spread in the southeastern U.S. So even more than finding new native species, we are finding new species that aren’t native to eastern North America, but that are naturalizing and in some cases spreading and becoming problematic.

I guess another thing I did want mention about the app is once you get to a species, there’s the range map. There’s a description of it. There’s a description of the habitats that it’s found in. Of the flowering and fruiting time that it usually flowers and fruits – it’s a late summer plant rather than an early spring plant. There’s also information about its rarity, whether it’s a rare species range wide or less so or a more common species.

The range map is pretty detailed and shows not only what physiographic provinces and states that it occurs in, but also how common or rare it is in those areas. So, you get sort of a feel for the geography of the plant.

And we’re going to be working into the app additional information that we think will be useful about each of the individual species. That’ll include its wetland status, whether it occurs in wetlands, or only in drylands, or in both. So that’s kind of an official ranking that is maintained. It’s conservatism, whether it tends to occur only in supernatural areas versus more human disturbed areas – it’s coefficient of conservatism. Whether it tends to occur in sunny or shady places – it’s grasslandiness or degree of heliophiley (sun lovingness).

So other kinds of attributes like that we’ll be adding to the app. If you’ve purchased the app, some of these additions and innovations and then further changes that we’ll be making to the app those will just load into the app when we make them. They’ll download for free into your app as we make additions and changes. And the other kind of addition and change that we’ll make is as new species get described or new non-native species establish in an area and we change the maps and so forth, those new species will appear in the app So the app will basically be kept updated going forward.

Shannon: That is wonderful. Oh, and I want to say thank you so much for in the graphical key and interface letting us be able to skip things so that we don’t have to know what the fruit, the flower, and the root all look like in order to make a choice. Because that’s what happens sometimes on some of the dichotomous key choices.

Alan: That is so true, and people get so frustrated with that. The traditional dichotomous keys, they’re kind of a decision tree where you have to make 16 or 20 choices in sequence. And the sequence is determined by the key.

So if you make 8 of those choices and you get down to the ninth choice and the ninth choice is, “What is the color of the flower petals?” and you don’t have flowers, then you’re sort of dead in the water. You’ve reached a dead end. You don’t know where to go from there. You can try to go each way, but then that gets really complicated. And then if you hit another dead end you, go each way that place, and anyway it becomes a nightmare.

So I think the flexibility of the key and the ability to use the power of the little computer that is your smartphone, sorting through that data and eliminating choices for you, is just a great use of technology that keeps your brain engaged, but that makes it easy for you.

Shannon: Yeah. It’s actually doable. It’s not frustrating or overwhelming which is also helpful and keeps you engaged, or at least keeps me engaged. I’m not going to speak for everybody else, but I know it does for me.

Alan: Well, that’s great. It’s certainly our hope that a lot of people will find this an engaging and successful way to identify plants. We’ve done a lot of testing of it with a diversity of users, including folks who have not had much botanical training, or any botanical training. And it really works remarkably well. It’s really I think a great new approach to plant ID.

Shannon: So you guys have created this amazing resource and actually it’s a whole series of resources. I mean we’re talking a lot about the app right now. But even the Flora which is the big pdf one, I mean I’ve used that for a couple of years now and have really enjoyed it. But my favorite right now is the FloraQuest app which I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true, because I’ve just never been one for plan ID apps. But this one I really like and think it’s going to become my new go-to resource.

Alan: That is great to hear. And anybody who wants to find any of these resources that are being put out by the Flora of the Southeast Project located in Chapel Hill at UNC and the Botanical Garden you can go to the North Carolina Botanical Garden webpage.

So if you just put in your search engine North Carolina Botanical Garden and then go to Floras and apps and herbarium subpages on that you’ll be able to download the PDFs for free and it’ll point you towards the app stores for the installable apps. We’re putting it out there for people to learn more about the natural world around them, the real world, and to appreciate and love their natural heritage and support conservation of the wonderful plant diversity that we have in the southeastern United States.

Shannon: And I want to make things really easy for everybody. I’ll have links in the show notes for all of this stuff. So, all everybody has to do is go to the show notes or go to the webpage for this episode. I will have everything there for you to just very quickly and easily be able to find everything that we’ve talked about here today.

Well, this has been so wonderful. Thank you again for all the work you do and for also taking the time to talk with us today.

Alan: Well, you’re most welcome, Shannon. It’s great to see you again and it was fun to talk with you about plant identification and the importance of seeing more than a green wall out there.

Shannon: Yes. Well, thanks so much and have a great day.

Alan: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.

Shannon: Bye bye.

I am grateful for all of the hard work that Alan and his team do to make identifying plants in the Southeast as easy and as accessible as possible. I also really appreciate Alan taking the time to talk with us.

If you are interested in learning how to identify plants, or already know how to identify plants but haven’t memorized all 11,000 species found in the southeastern U.S., then I encourage you to take a look at the FloraQuest app. Or if you love traditional dichotomous keys, the Flora of the Southeast. I’ve been using the FloraQuest app for a few weeks and am really excited about it.

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Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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