Updates to plant annotations

We’ve just released updates that will make iNaturalist data more useful to the scientific community using iNat for phenology research.

The key changes to plant annotations are:

  • Clarified definitions for flowers and fruits for angiosperms
  • Addition of leaves and needles for vascular plants
  • Hiding of sex for all plants

You can read the updated definitions in our documentation. There are new keyboard shortcuts for leaves which you can see on the Identify view on observations of vascular plants.

We’ve excluded “sex” as an annotation for plants. However, any past “sex” annotations for plants are still present (just hidden from view). (Rolled back based on comments below)

We’ll announce these changes more broadly tomorrow soon in a blog post, but wanted to mention it here now for anyone who notices it immediately. You’ll also now be able to see on someone’s profile how many observations they have annotated.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to discussions here and on iNaturalist about improving annotations for plants. Your suggestions were immensely helpful. We also worked closely with other phenology programs (USA National Phenology Network and Budburst) and phenology researchers to develop and revise these terms.

These updates were supported by a collaborative grant from the US National Science Foundation to advance plant phenology research through the creation of Phenobase. Phenobase will aggregate plant phenology data from many sources using the Plant Phenology Ontology to maximize data interoperability. The Phenobase collaboration involves the USA National Phenology Network, University of Arizona, Louisiana State University, University of Florida, and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

It is hard to strike the balance of broad applicability and useful specificity. We know that many species do not fit nicely into these categories, but the goal is to provide at least a useful starting place for annotating reproductive structures and leaves for most species of plants.

We know that these changes don’t advance mosses and other non-vascular plants at all, or reproductive structures for conifers, ferns, and other non-flowering plants. We welcome continued discussion for those in the long annotations thread, but don’t anticipate adding new annotations before 2025.

If you notice any issues as we roll this out today, please let us know.


Cool! I also love the ability to see annotations from profile pages, thanks for mentioning that.


Hopefully people (who didn’t read the definition) don’t get confused by the term “colored leaves” and include leaves that start off colored when they emerge before turning green or leaves that are always colored.


Good job.
You can still “agree” or “disagree” with your own selection.


There will be a learning curve for sure, I did that with some poison oak.


Great! Are there keyboard shortcuts for Leaves, just as there are for Flowers and Fruits when in Identify mode?

You can view the shortcuts in the lower left on the Annotations tab of Identify:


I’m curious as to why sex was excluded as an annotation. It was handy for looking at male and female flower emergence in dioecious species, for example.


…And showing how different the male and female flowers or even whole male and female plants are sometimes.


Yes, I had the same initial interpretation of colored leaves–I was thinking new growth on Nekemias arborea or some Rosa species, not late season/drought color. Maybe “discolored leaves” would be more intuitive?


One question as I’m going through my own observations to annotate leaf color: I have a few that show nicely colored leaves but detached from the tree (e.g. on the ground). Should these be annotated as well, or only ones that are still attached to the tree?


Change not as bad as I kind of expected. However.

(1) I think you need to choose a different term for “colored leaves” since green is a color.

(2) Bring back the sex annotation! (Or remove it for animals – do you really want to do that?) You could reword it “Dioecious – plant female; Dioecious – plant male; not dioecious.” Or add terms for monoecious plants. Will everyone understand dioecious and monoecious? No. But at least you’d have the data from some of us.


Something that would be helpful (maybe difficult to implement) is a way to search people who are making specific annotations. I’d be really interested to connect with people working on similar or the same groups as me so that we could form collaborative work groups to tackle large jobs.


Taking away sex annotations sure seems to be a step backwards for iNaturalist. These annotations were leading towards plenty of meaningful data for many dioecious species where sex ratios, flowering times for each sex, parasitism ratios, etc. are sparsely recorded if not completely unknown to science.

And with all the added annotations, some of which seem of questionable usefulness, it’s surprising to see that fruiting was not split into developing fruits vs. ripe fruits. Many users annotate plants with developing fruits as “fruiting”, which really undermines the usefulness of that data.


Genuinely curious, how else would you annotate a plant with developing fruits? Not at all?



Dioecious plant female

would make it clear to non-botanists
that when iNat asks for Sex, they are not the gender police.
(Be careful what you wish for. Mea culpa)

I was hoping that we would get an option more like the way animal annotations are done. Larva is offered for this taxon, but not where it does not apply. Now my workaround is to leave a comment - male flowers - but that will not let me sort for ‘pictures of male flowers’.

If we could flag for curation
This taxon needs the existing Sex annotations to be UNhidden please.
And then should allow us to annotate for Sex for that taxon in future again.
33K for https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/186152-Leucadendron
40K for https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/54693-Restionaceae

This solution is similar to hiding all Larva annotations across relevant animals.


I frequently ID dioecious plants and used the sex annotation all the time. I’m really sorry to see it go. It’s useful for finding observations of plants that are one sex or another, either for research purposes or just to find good photos. For instance I used it to look for observations of the rare yellow-fruited form of common spicebush, Lindera benzoin, where I only want to see female observations for obvious reasons. It can also be useful to study sex distribution within populations, where sometimes there are more males or females. I know there is some difficulty with having the sex annotation on plants, as plant sex can be fluid with many plants being monoecious and others capable of changing sex, but I can’t help but feel that this is a negative change for the platform. Dioecious plants are a thing and knowing what sex they are can be useful.


I stopped using the sex annotation awhile ago so it doesn’t bother me that it is gone. It wasn’t very useful for plants and tended to be misused. For example, some users marked trilliums “sex can not be determined” when the flower clearly had both male and female parts.

I used to mark Acer pensylvanicum as female whenever I observed fruits but after awhile I realized that was wrong. The sex annotation isn’t really about plants, it’s about flowers (or at least I think it should be). Assuming the plant being identified has flowers, there are flowers with female parts, or flowers with male parts, or flowers with both female and male parts, or some combination of those options. So it’s complicated.

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This is how I see it, too.

I think to be useful the sex annotation would need to include the three values male flowers, female flowers, and perfect/bisexual flowers and allow selecting multiple options to reflect the possible combinations of flower types (e.g. many cucurbits are monoecious with male and female flowers developing at different times, so any given plant might have male flowers only, female flowers only, or a combination of both).


Please annotate leaves even if they are not attached to the tree.

Separating ripe and unripe fruits was considered, but since the ability to easily see this varies considerably from species to species, we opted to keep a single fruit option. For anyone interested in finer phenological definitions for particular species, we suggest using observation fields.

The sex annotation applied to all life (with exceptions, now including plants) has just three mutually exclusive options: female, male, and cannot be determined. These three options don’t make sense for the vast majority of plant species, and that is reflected in how little the sex annotation was used for plants.

For context and easy reference (since the plant sex data is not lost), here are some links to show how many observations have been annotated:

Annotation type Number of verifiable observations Number of species Link
Flower & fruit annotations 8,042,026 91,189 https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?term_id=12
Plants with Sex annotations 93,440 10,482 https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?taxon_id=47126&term_id=9
Plants with Sex: Female annotations 36,936 3,240 https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?taxon_id=47126&term_id=9&term_value_id=10
Plants with Sex: Male annotations 16,475 1,960 https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?taxon_id=47126&term_id=9&term_value_id=11
Plants with Sex: Cannot be determined annotations 37,642 8,449 https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?taxon_id=47126&term_id=9&term_value_id=20
Leaf annotations (<24 hours of entry) 6,417 2,053 https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?taxon_id=47126&term_id=36

If you look at the species in each of the sex annotation categories, a relatively small number of species dominate, e.g. persimmons.

As many of you have pointed out, an annotation specifically about flower types would be more appropriate. I would love to replace “Sex” with something that would be more applicable to most species of plants, so please keep the suggestions (and nuances) coming. (Note that non-flowering common liverwort is 6th for the most-sex-annotated species (edited to add—because it is dioecious)).