Overthinking plant identification

Hi everyone,

This might seem a bit silly but lately I feel like I’ve been increasingly doubting my plant identifications, to the point that I’m having a mini “crisis” regarding them.

To start, I should mention that I’m completely an amateur - I have no formal training in botany, I just read field guides and books and stuff. So I don’t know what the experience of identifying plants is as a professional botanist.

That being said, I know that botanists generally use dichotomous keys to identify plants. I’m no stranger to keys, and I’ve used them before in the outdoors. But these keys often rely on technical features that just aren’t available in most iNat observations. For example, at step 5 the key for Asteraceae of New England (link) tells you to look at pappi, which means if I am to use this key I’m pretty much stuck. Additionally, identifying down to genus or family using keys can be pretty hard in the first place, again because the relevant information may just be completely missing. Also all of this is assuming I’m using the key correctly and not misinterpreting plant anatomy (such as bracts, sepals, etc.). And then there’s the cases where I just don’t have any available key; this is particularly noticeable for cultivated plants.

So basically for identifying plants I’m pretty much going off the “general appearance” and all. And while it generally works, because people are for the most part not disagreeing with my IDs, it just feels so wrong. With a few exceptions, if somebody were to ask me why I suggested an idea, I probably couldn’t give an answer better than “It just looks like it”. I always have this nagging feeling in my head, like, “What if it’s not actually this plant? What if it’s a totally unrelated lookalike?”

I suppose know a little bit of caution never hurts - I’ve definitely avoided making incorrect IDs by making bumping up my ID from a more specific level, such as from genus to family. But at the same time, I could be more and more cautious and it wouldn’t stop. You know, maybe there’s another genus in the same family that looks very similar. Maybe there’s another genus in another family or class altogether that looks very similar. I can never know for sure, because there’s over 300,000 plant species and it pains me to know I won’t know all of them :(

Do you all have any thoughts about this? It’s a weirdly basic question, but how do you all go about identifying plants?

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Ah I feel this way too! I tend to overthink all the time, then just don’t ID because I don’t want to make too many mistakes (some are ok, as making mistakes is an excellent way to learn). I’d be curious to hear what others respond here.
I’m also a little worried about IDing someone’s observation to species without being 100% of its accuracy because I know that some iNaturalist users just agree with anything. And so by IDing something to species, and someone blindly agrees to it, bumping it to research grade, it gets lost and may never get IDed properly (if it had happened to be IDed incorrectly).

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@someplant I’ll start by saying that I’m an amateur as well, not just with plants but all taxa. It seems to boils down to experience and knowing that some plant (animals & fungus) groups are hard to identify without close magnified inspection.and others are unique enough to allow easy ID at a glance. Most of my experience is with birds and over time I find I can identify many species at a glance based on characteristics I’ve grown familiar with that are difficult to put into words and not in the field guides. There are other species, of course, that demand close scrutiny to be certain about. I’ve found plants hard to get to know because the shear number of species means most popular field guides have to limit the number they cover to remain a manageable size. More comprehensive guides relay on details not often captured by photos. Lately I’ve found local species lists very helpful. Although they provide no identification help they show what species in any given group I can expect to find in my area and what ones I need to focus on and what ones I can ignore. I think most states and provinces in North American have such lists and there are some smaller jurisdictions with comprehensive lists. Good luck!

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Ah yes, the ol’ Dunning-Kruger effect strikes again.

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If you’re dealing with family level then families have specific characteristics that can be used outside of keys, you can see Brassicaceae or Asteraceae and explain why it is a specimen from those families.
First of all, it’s okay to be wrong, we’re here to learn, and iNat deals well with wrong ids, you always can withdraw one, so don’t focus too much on this aspect.
To be more sure you should focus on one region, you didn’t mention observations from which regions/s do you id other than New England key. Every place have different number of families and to start it’s easier to look at places of higher latitude, where biodiversity is lower.
If you think about unrelated lookalikes then think about what makes this plant it, what from overall appearance caught your eye, is everything the same as it should be?

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I, too, am not very confident. I look for the plants with few look-a-likes in my region and am more confident putting a species ID on them. Several more I can get to genus but not distinguish the species because there are too many local possibilities with relatively small differences. A lot of other stuff I am mostly moving from “unknown” to some pretty high taxon level to help specialists find them, so no risk of becoming wrongly research grade. I monitor my activity feed to watch for disagreements and also occasionally check to make sure I have no “maverick” identifies so that if someone does catch an error I can withdraw my ID. You could also leave a note, especially for a new user, that “agreement” should only be given if they can confidently ID a species themselves. I’ve also seen some identifiers simply add “?” to the comments on their ID to indicate not being confident in the ID.

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I almost never use keys for iNat purposes. Because the keys are written for these who sit at the microscopes with a specimen in hand. I just learn species, I check the ecology, descriptions of similar species and illustrations in reliable sources. If I am not confident about the species, I leave it at the genus level or higher. If I am in a totally unfamiliar area, I often use the highest taxonomic levels, like Dicots, because I know that I do not have knowledge or information resources to do better. I‘ve been droning on that for some time, but the keys for naturalists should be done in totally different way than for the experts and they should be not printed, but internet resources.

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I’d agree with the thread I see through many of these replies of focusing on your geographic area of familiarity- going with your asteraceae example, at this point (having keyed out many specimens from my local region’s various habitats) I’m pretty confident IDing quite a few Symphyotrichum species from not-very-good photographs, between the “general feel” (gestalt is a term you’ll see to describe that) and certain key features here and there (usually not the features relied on in dichotomous keys). A couple years ago I’d have been uncomfortable IDing any of those, and in a couple years I expect I’ll have a comfortable handle on at least a few more, and I restrict the geography of my IDing because I know that I could make false positive IDs if some species that occur outside my area overlap in traits with the species I know in ways I don’t expect- it’s a growth process, and I think the uncertainty you’re feeling is healthy as long as it doesn’t become so uncomfortable as to make you avoid the subject entirely. I think it’s worth remembering that there’s no real urgency to get iNat observations to research grade- you can meet the process where you’re at.

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Follow your notifications. Even older IDs with lots of agreement … can move later.
The learning curve for me is more like a stepped pyramid, with the bit I know below / behind me, and ALWAYS another flight of stairs ahead / above.

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This is a perfect definition of it. I just could not find the right expression.

I am also very new to IDing plant species, but a good rule of thumb I use when IDing really anything is that if someone questions my ID do I have a reason or answer to back up my ID? This can sometimes be a very small answer that could be proved wrong, but if I at least have something like “It’s the right time of year and place” then I will ID. Not sure if this could be improved upon, but that with a few other things is how I ID.

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Dichotomous keys can be great, but they are no substitute for personal experience (i.e. familiarity with the species one is attempting to identify). I’ve found myself keying plants over and over again that seem to meet all the described characteristics, then when I see a picture of that species, I realize that it is nothing like what I have. My complaint with field guides and botanical manuals is that they are always either too descriptive to the exclusion of photos/illustrations, or they rely too heavily on photographs and leave out important characteristics or even whole species (many beginner’s guides only feature common species). That said, there are many useful characteristics that often go undescribed in technical manuals (such as plant form). What I find myself doing more of is identifying a plant to genus level (or sometimes family level) and trying to familiarize myself with that group rather than try to separate individual species immediately. Once you allow yourself the time to become familiar with a group of plants, it is far easier to identify species. Eventually, the subtle visual differences between species will become obvious, but, in my experience, overthinking an identification is a part of the process of getting there.

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I’m an expert in plant identification – some plants, in some places. I make mistakes. Sometimes they’re just careless mistakes – I labeled a Canada Goose as a Canada Gooseberry recently – and sometimes I really don’t know how to distinguish species I thought I could (Vinca minor vs. V. major), or what I thought was just one species are really two or more (Galium, Verbascum). I pay attention to the notifications. They alert me to errors and sometimes teach me distinctions I’d like to understand.

I agree with you that one usually can’t key iNaturalist photos. That’s OK. General appearance and some major morphological traits are most useful.

When I don’t feel confidence of my identification at one level, I may bump the ID up to genus or above. However, sometimes I’m close enough to confident that I’ll add a note saying “maybe” or “In my area I’d call this species X but I’m not sure that’s correct in your area,” or “I think it’s species X but I’d feel more confident if I could see the underside of the leaf,” or something else that explains my concern.

Sounds to me like you’re doing a good job and are on the learning curve like all of us. As they don’t usually tell us in class, that curve just keeps curving and curving. Have fun.

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as a fellow novice naturalist who feels similarly…

I feel a bit lucky in my location. There’s a Minnesota website that deals with native plants. If you’re looking at one species, it will tell you what species look similarly to it and what details point toward one or the other(s). I really need this. I need a X has these details and Y has these other details.

Additionally, being in a large urban area/county, we have lots of people identifying plants uploaded to iNat. So I get lots of response to things I upload and that helps me learn and develop my own skills over time.

My modus operandi is when trying to identify my own obs (and to some extent, others)

  • Look at iNat’s computer vision suggestions. Take a quick look at some images of that taxon on iNat to see if it looks reasonable. I use this as a rough screen only and mostly only for species recommendations. If it looks wrong. I discard the suggestion. If it looks possible. I proceed.

  • I immediately go to my beloved website. If they have the species that iNat recommended, I can get down to some granular identification details and a suggestion on what other species I should consider and what I should look for.

  • If I feel pretty confident I may have it, for my own obs I may go to species with a suggestion. If I’m a little less confident, I may go to genus or above. If I’ve taken good photos, I get pretty quick suggestions from others.

  • I use these suggestions (made by others) to learn. I might go research the suggestion they’ve made. Can I get enough info to agree with them? If not, I might ask: “hey, I was really struggling with how to tell if this was X or Y. Can you give me a mini-tutorial on what you looked at to determine it was X?” Not only have many of them helped me with details to look for, they’ve given me other sources to reference. That advances my own skill and confidence level.

  • Sometimes I feel the need for more info, I’ll search for other online sources. Usually those sites I find will tell me what X looks like and I’ll need to search for other species that I think might be possible. This is risky because I may not know what other species I should consider. But some info I will seek out, if I’m being dogged enough is: what is the prevalence of this species in my area? what is the preferred habitat of this species? I’ve found some interesting resources on surveys done in natural areas. I’ve corresponded with people monitoring invasive species in the state to see if there has been any report of Y in the state. I’ve contacted the city park board to see if they’ve ever planted this ‘exotic’ tree in the parks because I think I’ve found one (answer: yes… they did).

I don’t do a lot of genus/species level ids, esp. for plants, on other people’s obs. But I do (over the winter) try to move ‘unknown’ obs to something else. I’m not likely to research these identifications but, like you, I can get a sense. If I think it might be a type of X plant, and iNat suggests it strongly, I’ll sometimes go with it (genus level or above only). If iNat offers some similar looking suggestions and I’m not keen to go research, I’ll go with something high level (that I’m most comfortable with) but say ‘not sure but it looks like X’ in a comment. That’s more useful than leaving no suggestion at all, in my opinion, and if someone comes back and say ‘it’s X’… I feel I can more readily agree.

At my novice level, I would (personally) only work on things in my state/area. I have a hard enough time trying to determine between native X species and the very similar Y species that only grows naturally in the south but has been brought north as an ornamental and has now gone native! I’ve run across many organisms that have ‘twins’ in other areas of the county/world that are distinguished mainly by their range. I respect my limits in knowledge and respect the scholars who dedicate themselves to broader ranges.

And I would echo: check your notifications. I have made newbie bonehead mistakes and I wouldn’t want my error hanging up a RG designation. And… fixing my mistakes is all part of the learning curve for me.

my beloved website for anyone in the Minnesota area: minnesotawildflowers.info

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i started using iNaturalist by identifying plants in local parks that had relatively high numbers of observations. if i came across an observation that i wasn’t sure about because the evidence wasn’t enough to key things out to, i would go out to the location and try to get the additional evidence needed to key things out. especially for plants, sometimes, there’s just no substitute for being able to see it, touch it, smell it, etc. in person; to see where it’s growing (shade? soil? terrain? proximity to water? proximity to other plants? etc.); to see what other organisms are visiting (ex. why does this plant seem to attract so many beetles and flies but not a lot of bees? are those ants interested in the flowers or are there extrafloral nectaries somewhere on the plant, and why would this plant need EFNs? etc.)

i think another thing that may be useful if you’re not super confident is just to pace yourself. there’s no need to try to add IDs to all observations of a particular species if you’re not sure. they’ll still be there later. maybe just do a few IDs, then go out into the field or check out the species page in iNat to study up on species that are often mistaken for your plant or look at the map to see what nearby plants look like and when they were observed… then when you know more and are more confident, come back later and do some more IDs.

finally, always feel free to discuss IDs with the observers and other identifiers. sometimes, observers can provide additional photos or context, and identifiers sometimes will provide lots of good knowledge about identifying, about the plants in general, and about resources or otherpeople who might also be helpful.

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This issue has come up under different guises, and is one of the semi-controversies that new users deal with. We aren’t really sure what iNaturalist is doing here. Primarily, iNaturalist is here to connect people with nature. Some people here use it as a serious database of species distribution, and those people can get annoyed when an ID is wrong.

I am in the first group, and to me, the important thing is to get an intuitive sense of what things are.

A very good example species is the California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica. This is an extremely common species along the Pacific Coast, especially in California, and it takes literally a single glance to be able to identify it from the “gestalt”, either in person, or in an observation.
But technically, there are other species in the genus. Almost all of them are endemic to small ranges. There are some that grow in the same range as the California Poppy, but are more rare. It is hard to tell them apart, because the natural variation in appearance in the species californica can be greater than between species. To know the difference would require examining small features of the plant.

But, on a normal day, I just trust myself. If it is a non-controversial, common plant that I have a good image of, I just trust myself that I can identify it without looking for microanatomical proof that it isn’t a rare endemic species growing hundreds of miles outside of its range. That might not be good enough for a scientific paper, but it is enough for me to learn more about the natural world around me.

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Wow, thank you all for the replies!

I guess the general consensus is that it’s okay to make identifications based on “gestalt”, as long as you know what you’re doing.

Yeah I started off by learning trees of North America using field guides, and I gradually moved onto vascular plants. (I have no experiences with any non-vascular plants.) Around that time, I became more familiar with the concept of “keys” to identify plants. In my experience, using “gestalt” to identify plants works better with trees than with wildflowers, since wildflower guides will often have only the genus. Currently, I’d guess I have the most experience with plants of northeastern North America, but I also do a lot of IDs of high-level (e.g. Plantae or Angiospermae) plants, to where I’m confident.

In some ways I’m also lucky because the site that I use often, http://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org, has keys for the New England area, and if you’re not sure of the terminology, you can hover over the text and it’ll give you a definition. That being said, it doesn’t seem to have descriptions of the species. Like @mmmiller has mentioned, I also occasionally use minnesotawildflowers.info for a “second opinion”.

There are probably a lot of other ideas I wanted to add, but I can’t remember them all at the moment. Oh well.

I guess this conversation could also be expanded to how people identify other organisms. I have some observations of other organisms (insects, amphibians, and birds) and I have no idea where to start, haha. Definitely there needs to be like some sort of “master list” of online resources…

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Depending on your location, these series of books might interest you. They function as kind of a general guide - some detail but sometimes not enough. And I’m not crazy about some of the photos. But they’re affordable and I stuck most of them in my Amazon wish list since they make an easy gift for someone to pick out for me. (and, although they are meant to be carried into the field should one wish … and I’ve known people who do … they are really handy for pressing paper projects flat after gluing)

Kollath+Stensaas Publishing : “natural history field guides for the North Woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, New England, the Rocky Mountains and other regions of the U.S.” http://www.kollathstensaas.com/books.php

There have been lots of suggestions for resources on the forum and I have bookmarked a lot but it can be hard to remember one has a resource for any particular quest one is on. And if the resources cover all the flies in North America… I need it broken down more. I tend to use the resources that are for areas around me and only people in my area would be interested in those! (I have thought about either adding some of those links to my profile page or making a journal post about them so I could easily reference them myself or recommend them to someone else).

I’m surprised you found minnesotawildflowers.info and find it useful. (since it looked like you were on the East Coast USA - I checked your obs for just that reason) That’s encouraging to know. I emailed them about a bad internal link they had and they responded pretty quickly and fixed it. For nature this year, I donated to iNat and that website - I use it so much I figured it was only right!

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You can check the thread about favourite guides, but depending on group you need to search for a book or simple key, there’re tons of them online.

Great suggestions by @mmmiller. I often find the minnesotawildflowers.info site helpful, and I’m in Mississippi! Likewise illinoiswildflowers.info.

The suggestion to ask an identifier “What did you see in this photo that told you it was X instead of Y?” is super. I have used that tactic many times and learned much, and no one has ever taken offense. And I don’t mind being asked, either. It sharpens my own IDs.

Here’s a trick I use when I’m on the edge of my expertise in doing IDs. Let’s say I’m pretty sure a flower is a Hibiscus, and the observer is in Alabama, USA. I use the “explore” function in INaturalist to see how many Hibiscus observations in Alabama there are, and then I click on Species to see how many species people have observed. It it’s just a few, like 3 to 5 species, it might be worth going further (field guides, keys) to review how to tell those apart, but if it’s more like a dozen species, I’m in over my head and I should leave it to someone else…for now anyway.

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