Why are Trees Slow to Get Identified?

A question: Anyone who has seen my observations can see that I’m fascinated by trees. I’m trying to learn all the species in my town, and then want to learn all species in the world. Anyway, I’ve noticed that my observations of trees generally do not get identified very quickly. Less quickly than pix of birds or flowers or insects or spiders. I always tag ID them as “plants.”

Is there a good reason for this to be so? Are my observations weak? Should I do them differently? Should each observation have more tha one picture (of leaves and of bark, for instance)? Or are people just less interested in trees as a category?

Just curious!

And 1000 thanks to everyone who identifies the things I observe!


In general, plants are slower to get (and less successfully) identified. There are several reasons for this:

  • plants are the largest category of things submitted to the site, so there are more demands on identifiers for them than anything else
  • plants are often the subject of a lot of low quality observations, students assigned to take pictures, etc who just snap away with their phone, which can make wading through the records slower
  • with trees (and all plants), people face the issue of if it was planted, it can literally be anything from anywhere in the world that can survive in the climate where it is planted. Birds, reptiles, insects etc dont have this same ‘mobility’. If I’m ID’ing birds, I can eliminate a lot of lookalikes just based on where it was seen, this is less easy to do for plants
  • there is no reason to suspect your records are weak. As you correctly note, if you can add multiple pictures showing bark, leaves, buds, whatever, and make sure you at least ID them as Plants, it will certainly help.

probably the best thing you can do is to try to identify some your own observations. you’ll start to see why things like trees often aren’t identified to a low level, and then you’ll know what additional details you’ll need to capture next time.


FYI - here is a nice reference site, yes it is ‘for’ Ontario, but it looks like you are in Massachusetts, and just about anything there will be here (actually given our much larger size and diverse habitats there will be a lot here not seen where you are).



i think https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org/ works in New England.


I do most of my identifying on trees, when I have the time, and I would like to say that absolutely yes, tree observations should almost always have more than one picture! Ideally a wide view, a closer view of the bark texture, multiple leaves, buds on the twigs, and any attached or fallen flowers or fruit. There are many species of tree that look very similar in individual superficial characteristics, and at the same time a given species of tree can have highly variable bark or leaves. There are many tree observations I’ve had to pass by on Identify because the photographs given simply didn’t allow for identification past genus.


Keep up the good observations!

I’ll say it can be hard to really learn plants and trees from photos–even photos you take yourself!

If you’re into trees, it looks like the Arnold Arboretum has some workshops on tree ID in the Boston area (it looked like maybe you are in that area):


Also make sure to mark street trees you observe and trees that are planted in gardens as “cultivated”.


When I take pictures of trees, I do try to get as many id features as possible. I’ve noticed that some tree pictures are taken from a distance and while yes certain trees grow in certain general manner in the open, long distance pictures of trees can be difficult to id to species. Winter is a great time to id trees because winter twigs buds scars and often pith characteristics are easy to see and photograph. Sometimes similar trees are differentiated by subtle clues so make sure you try to provide pictures that show types of hair on leaves or thinngs like the chambered pith of walnuts or diaphrammed pith of black gum or the two toned bark of american elm (without doing too much damage to twigs or bark) - Generally the more details you include the easier it is to confirm the id. Some woodland trees are tough because the crown is 50 - 100 ft up - sometimes you can find recently fallen limbs that give you access to leaves flowers twig characteristics or fruits. Barkmof course can be very distinctive insimilar species like the red oaks, walnuts etc and is always accessible but in others like tight barked hickories its not as helpful at least to me anyways!


Huge thanks for all these incredibly helpful replies! Inat is the best social network, and its users are the best too.


In addition to the reasons others have mentioned, I think it’s because trees are big enough to attract attention without flowering. If you posted pictures of sedge or grass or forb leaves, your IDs would take even longer. The Linnean taxonomy system was originally based on flower anatomy and flowers and fruit are still the most distinctive parts of most plants, so if you just have leaves (or worse, bark or growth habit from a distance), the keys are not usable and there’s no way to completely rule out alternatives.

I’ve been going through the same process for Michigan lately and the best tip I have would be to actually use ID keys in the field while you’re taking pictures. That way you know what parts will give a definitive ID and you can make sure you get good pictures of them. I’m sure there are good key resources in your area; https://michiganflora.net/ has great ones for Michigan but they likely won’t be comprehensive in MA.


I went through a few of your observations earlier and ID’d them to the best of my knowledge. One thing I would suggest using as a tool is search the state and look at the observations from the state that look similar. This might not always be the correct ID but at least you’ll be on the right path. I do this a lot when it comes to plants in areas new to me and almost always works, unless I took a bad photo for ID’ing purposes haha!


Here is my General Guide to Photographing Plants - there are other sections in the guide for different things, but this one would be the main page for trees :)


While this is the correct thing to do as a resposible user of iNaturalist, I feel I should warn you it will further slow the rate of identification, because not many people choose to view and ID captive plants.


You can also note in your description that it is cultivated, so as not to mislead anyone, and then change its status to Captive after it is IDd.


i’ve been experiencing the same problem with shrooms, plants and specifically trees. Those are really slow to be identified by community, whereas birds, for example, get identified in an instant. People just love birds (personally - ain’t got no passion for those flying dinos, maybe chicken from time to time).

Concerning cultivated trees and plants in general there’s this project by russian botanists where they go through observations from time to time - got my planties IDed at least to the genus lvl, which is really nice. There’s also similar project for indoor house plants.

Hope this will help a little.

P.S. anyone who would like to help me with my obs are welcome, any help is really appreciated. although i gotta admit - central asian plants are tough ones :upside_down_face:

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Hopefully this is not seen as being ‘that guy’, but the best way to increase the rate at which your records are reviewed is to promote the site to others in the naturalist community locally and get more local folks using the platform.

What happened with Russia is a great example, Russia used to have a fairly minor footprint on the site, with relatively low rates of identification. Then there was a significant uptake in use in Russia (mainly driven I understand by Flickr moving to a paid model, and lots of Russia Flickr users migrating here, and spreading the word). Now Russia has a thriving community on the site, and one of the highest rates on the site in terms of getting their records promoted to research grade.


Not at all :upside_down_face:
I was actually just thinking of creating a topic in general discussion on how to promote iNat locally with hope to get some ideas.

Yes, Russia is a great example, where some inspiration could be drawn from, and while you’re right about Flickr and user migration, the same didn’t work for Kazakhstan or any other Central Asian country - we just got one user from Flickr and got a bit of a spike in spider observations recently. Other than that - nothing.

But there’s also great efforts behind russian community growth driven by local botanists - they are using all available means of promotion (and, well, they got a budget to do that): advertisement in public transportation, articles in online and offline periodicals, recently they went on radio and talked about iNat, and, of course, word-of-mouth communications works well.

P.S. I spend most of my time on iNat identifying obs from Russia.


I would of added «close-up of bark» for the trees and shrubs, otherwise it’s great piece!


imagine if you had to photograph bird genitalia and feather detail (front and back, please) to get a proper species-level ID…


You got me ROFL.
It’s not just that, but also the number of ppl amazed for some reason unknown to me by those flying creatures.