Tree identification can be a fun way to learn more about the plants around you. It also can be frustrating and cumbersome thanks to the world’s incredible array of plant species. On top of that, field guides can be a pain to carry around, and aren’t always user-friendly for amateur botanists.
Luck you and I, technology has made tree identification easier than ever. Apps like PlantSnap can help you identify trees right now and learn how to identify them on your own in the future.
There are several excellent apps to use while hiking that actually add to your appreciation of nature instead of distracting you from it.
As a kid, I loved learning tree identification. My father, a biologist, would point out the difference in needle counts between a white pine and a red pine. I learned to use needle length, bark texture, and tree shape for tree identification. I could identify most of the big trees of northern Wisconsin pretty easily.
Then I came to college in Colorado. All of the trees were different. My old rules of thumb didn’t work. The concept of altitude-dependent ranges kept tripping me up. I did not do well in the tree identification unit in field botany. I could point out a ponderosa pine, but was that was that a birch tree or a quaking aspen? A blue spruce or a subalpine fir?
Tree identification quickly became my least favorite part of botany. It was just too difficult to tell apart all of the different species of spruce, and I couldn’t seem to remember which subspecies of scrub oak was found at what elevation. I don’t know why, but I found tree identification in a new environment far more difficult than when I was a child in Wisconsin.
The field guides available were cumbersome to use and a pain to lug around in the field. While these problems aren’t unique to tree identification, I felt like learning new tree species was more difficult than learning most flowering plants. That said, tree identification is still easier than grass identification!
Tree identification: then versus now
With the help of technology, tree identification is easier now than it was in the days of field sketches and pressing samples. Tree identification used to involve detailed sketches of leaves and the shape of the tree and extensive notes on the texture of the bark.
It’s more common to just pull out a field guide to work on “keying out” tree identification in the field. This is much easier than pressing samples or trying to draw a tree well enough to identify it later – but it’s still a challenge. In certain parts of the world, there might be several species of closely related tree that are challenging to tell apart.
Now, you can just pull out your phone and snap a photo of a branch to identify a tree!
I’m sure that my college professors would not have allowed us to use apps like PlantSnap during an exam, but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful for learning tree identification. Since downloading PlantSnap, I’ve been able to use the app to double-check my identification of trees.
I don’t tend to carry around a field guide. Now I can identify plants using PlantSnap whenever I have my phone and cell service. This is easier than lugging around a few field guides every time I go for a hike or even a stroll around a new city.
Leveraging technology to learn tree identification
If you’d still like to learn tree identification, you can use PlantSnap to learn tree identification in two ways:
1. Reverse engineering tree identification. Once you’ve found a tree that you want to identify, you simply photograph it within the PlantSnap app and wait for the app to give you an identification. Now you know what species of tree you are looking at. Instead of just pocketing your phone and forgetting about it, now you can take a moment to observe and learn.
- Take notes – mental or physical – on where you are.
- Notice the elevation, the general climate, and other important features.
- Then really look at the tree. What is the bark like? What shape is the silhouette of the tree?
- Are there any cones, flowers, or fruits?
- What are the leaves or needles shaped like?
- Do the leaves or needles occur in clusters or patterns?
- Use the PlantSnap to learn more about the tree and its ecology as well.
Take the extra time to pay close attention to the tree after using PlantSnap. You’ll start noticing patterns and learn to identify trees on your own.
2. Use PlantSnap to check your work. If you already have a basis in tree identification, you can also use PlantSnap to help up your tree identification game. Rather than reaching for your phone right away, take a long look at the tree first. Take note of all of the features mentioned above.
See if you can make a good guess about what type of tree you’re looking at. If you can’t figure out the exact species, try to identify the tree to whatever level you can. That might mean you’re able to identify the tree as “some sort of palm” or “either an apple or cherry tree without fruit.” Really take some time to identify the tree as well as you can.
Once you’ve done that, check your work using the PlantSnap app.
Both of these methods make tree identification far easier. You don’t have to use technology as a crutch, though! Leveraging technology to learn tree identification is a great way to use the tools at your disposal to become a more knowledgeable amateur botanist.