New apps for field work

Published 10:27 am Thursday, January 16, 2020

Not too many years ago, hiking meant carrying a heavy backpack filled with my favorite field guides – some for plants, some for mushrooms and still others for trees. All of that has changed. I now pack my cellphone, a camera, a tripod and a snack. No books. Not even one.

With the advent of DNA testing and other technological advances, the classification of plants has changed tremendously. By the time a field guide is printed these days, it’s out of date, so my 10-year old books are dinosaurs.

The newest field guides are cellphone apps that their creators can quickly update and modify to meet changing needs. I have three favorites that are invaluable. The most important one for me is the Flora of Virginia Mobile app. When the Flora of Virginia was released in 2012, it was a massive volume densely packed with data and weighing about 7 pounds; it wasn’t designed for carrying in a backpack and the print format wasn’t easy to update. The editors knew that something else would be needed. They released the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, a web-based application where updates to the Flora are made and then in 2017, they introduced the Flora of Virginia app. It has graphic keys, dichotomous keys, photos, botanical illustrations, county-by-county range maps, botanical reference material, information on the history of botany in Virginia, and even suggestions for where to hike. It’s free and available for both Android and iOS devices. What’s more, it doesn’t require an internet connection to work in the field, a feature that is especially important if you’re in an area with poor cellphone coverage.

Seek, my second app is newer and has an entirely different focus. Open the app, take a photo and the app will, almost always, identify the plant, bird or insect in the photo. It will also provide a summary of information about your find, including a range map, and taxonomy. Sometimes there are problems taking a photo that the app can recognize. I haven’t figured out how to solve the problem, so there is considerable frustration if I desperately need an identification, and this app doesn’t work. Most of the time, however, the process is magical. I used it to identify some yellow mushrooms and a rare plant growing on a dune at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge near Virginia Beach. This app would be a great way to introduce children to the wonders of identifying plants and animals. It’s produced by the creators of iNaturalist, is free, and available for both Android and iOS operating systems. If you are a fan of iNaturalist, there is even a way to upload your observations to that platform.

My third app is more specialized. It’s called LeafSnap and is only for identifying trees. As with Seek, you take a photo of a leaf and get an identification, which will take you to photos of blooms, fruit, seeds and bark. The app currently focuses on trees found in the northeastern United States and Canada, but there are plans to broaden coverage to all of the United States. LeafSnap was developed by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian. City College of New York has used LeafSnap in science classes for middle school students and there are curriculum materials available.

I haven’t gotten rid of my paper backfield guides; there’s just too much emotional history attached to them. I can thumb through the stained and annotated pages and immediately remember the first time I saw a special plant. I can’t do that with the apps, but they sure make hiking easier, and times change.

DR. CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Farmville Herald. She can be reached at