Take your smartphone for a walk if you really want to learn about plants

Using your smartphone to identify wild plants can add a new dimension to daily walks – and the Seek app stands out from the crowd

A smart phone can be a handy plant reference Credit: Bernadett Pogacsas-Simon / Alamy 

Being a bit slow on the uptake with new technology, I haven’t paid much attention to the proliferation of smartphone apps that claim to use artificial intelligence to identify plants, and sometimes other things, too.

So I was delighted to find, while perusing the latest BSBI News (the newsletter of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), that someone had done the legwork for me. Hamlyn Jones, of the University of Dundee, put nine apps through their paces to find the best one. Or at least, since this is the BSBI, the best one for wild British plants.

The apps are all very different, so to some extent deciding on the “best” depends on what you think is important, but having read what Hamlyn has to say, Seek (inaturalist.org/pages/seek_app) looks like the best option to me. The other apps tend to give you a name even if they aren’t sure, but Seek doesn’t do that; it goes as far as it can, then stops. As a result, Seek may not always come up with an exact name, but in Hamlyn’s test it made the fewest mistakes.

Downloading the app and taking it for a quick turn around my garden confirmed Hamlyn’s findings. It got pheasant’s eye narcissus (Narcissus poeticus) and Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) spot on. It also recognised wisteria, hosta and ceanothus, but wisely declined to be more specific, and although for bugle (Ajuga reptans) it wasn’t able to get further than the family, it did get that right. Mind you, Seek doesn’t know everything, and there are some surprising gaps in its knowledge; in my garden it was completely baffled by Clematis montana.

Seek is also very easy to use, and works in “real time”. That is, when you point it at a plant, the app immediately tells you what it thinks you’re looking at, without you needing to take a picture. It also updates its answer as you move the camera around to give the app a closer view, or one from a different angle. When the app narrows your plant down to a species, it prompts you to take a picture, which unlocks more information about the species and can also (apparently) earn you a badge, but I haven’t bothered going there. No login or account is required, but you can sign in to the parent inaturalist site, and if you do, your observations can help Seek to learn new species.

After trying it in the garden, I took Seek for a walk to a nearby patch of rough grass, where it got daisy (Bellis perennis) right away, and easily recognised a buttercup, but wasn’t tempted to guess which one. More impressively, it got white clover (Trifolium repens) from only a patch of leaves, and also recognised ivy (Hedera helix) and maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) on a nearby wall, both from only the leaves.

Honestly, I haven’t had so much fun in weeks, which may simply be a sign of how little it takes to amuse me after months of lockdown, but it certainly adds a new dimension to that same old walk. Seek claims to identify animals, too, but I think that can wait; these days, I find it pays to have something to look forward to.

Ken Thompson is a plant biologist with a keen interest in the science of gardening. He writes and lectures extensively; his most recent book is Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants. Visit books.telegraph.co.uk