Gotta Catch ‘Em All: UW researchers developing plant identification app

Imagine you are walking down a trail or a sidewalk when you come across a gorgeous flower. It’s so pretty that you want to remember what it is for later, maybe to plant in your home garden or show to a friend.

So you take out your smartphone, open up your Plant ID app, input the plant’s characteristics, and violà! You now have the scientific name, statewide distribution, and any other facts about the species that you could want.

This is the goal for Catherine Woodward, a botanist and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is helping to develop a mobile application for identifying Wisconsin plant life.

The idea, Woodward says, is to provide naturalists, educators and anyone else curious about plants with an accessible, easy-to-navigate database as a reference when they are out interacting with plant life and want to learn more about specific organisms.

For a final project, one of her former dendrology students decided to create an app for identifying Wisconsin tree species. This “kind of spiraled into this idea” of creating an app for all the plants in Wisconsin, Woodward says.

According to Woodward, the final product will have the capacity to identify 1,800 different plant species. It will also include maps that show the range and distribution of species, drawing on data housed in the Wisconsin State Herbarium in Birge Hall on UW–Madison’s campus.

“The really unique thing about this app is that it will allow you to collect what you see,” Woodward says, describing a feature of the app that will allow users to develop a searchable catalog or checklist of plants they have identified.

Citizen science is a special component of the application. Through the app, users can collect and submit data to the State Herbarium, where the staff can validate user’s sightings. It will also, contribute to the herbarium and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ own records of Wisconsin plant life. Sightings of species that are listed as endangered or invasive will also be tagged and prioritized for review; a huge asset to researchers who may be investigating the data.

Woodward also hopes the app will be a tool for educators in Wisconsin and provides a fun and easy way to introduce younger age groups to plant life and botany.

“Because it’s icon based, it’s useful to kids. You can look at the picture and say ‘Oh it looks like that;’ you don’t have to read technical botanical terms to use it,” she says, adding, “I think this will help people overcome their fear because the goal is for it to be fun, not just something that you need or you find necessary for your career, but something that’s actually fun to do.”

The app is being developed by the Field Day Lab, a team of researchers and developers with the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. The team also works with Wisconsin DNR, who will be testing the app. The beta release is scheduled for this fall. The final version of the app will be available at either a small fee or free of charge, says Woodward.