Why are Trees Slow to Get Identified?

I tried to post this yesterday but apparently posts by new forum users are limited (never mind that I’ve been an iNat user for much longer? Annoying? Eh…anyway…)

I’ve noticed a similar problem not just with trees, but with all plants. I think everything @cmcheatle says is spot-on.

I try to do my part by spending a lot of time looking through both un-ID’ed plants to see if I can ID them, and ID’ed plants to check if I think they’re correct, or if I have anything to add.

I’m wondering if there could be some ways the site could better incentivize people putting more energy into identification. I also would love to see it point people towards more resources for identification. I think the largest problem I run into myself, when trying to ID stuff, is not knowing where to look.

One of the best resources I have for identifying plants in Pennsylvania is the book Plants of Pennsylvania. I don’t really know of similar or equivalent books for other states and regions. I.e. if I find stuff in MD, DE, or NJ, it falls outside the range of that book, and if I’m even farther, it’s even less useful.

There’s /r/whatsthisplant, which is occasionally useful, but not reliable.

Basically, the only great resource I have is this guy I know in person, and he’s amazing, and short of asking him, I don’t really know where to go to get ID help.

One last thought I had to add…when I ID plants, I rely on a lot of characteristics that cannot be easily captured, or captured at all, in a photo. For example, smell is a big one, but it can be hard to describe in words. Another is the texture or feeling of leaves, stems, or other plant parts. Yet another is the flexibility and hardness/softness of various parts.

A lot of the time I see a photo and I think: “I think I have an idea of what this is but I’m not sure.” and part of it is that when I’m not there in person, I can’t use all those other sensory inputs.

I think adding more verbal descriptions to try to capture the things that are not able to be captured in a photo, can help in a small way. But I think a lot of the challenges here are tougher ones.

I really feel you on this though! We’re all in the same boat!


I’ve noticed this, and I understand why.

I’ve experimented with enabling the “captive” checkbox on the filter form when I go to the “Identify” tab, and my immediate impression is that I’m flooded with pictures of garden plants, cultivars, even houseplants. I understand why this is not the default setting and I don’t think I would want it to be the default setting.

According to iNaturalist, a tree, even a wild-type tree indistinguishable from trees in the wild, planted in a park, is treated in the same category. From the perspective of someone wanting to know what the tree is, and using iNaturalist primarily as a crowdsourced ID tool, it doesn’t seem terribly useful to lump these trees in with all the garden plants.

I also, however, don’t like the idea of leaving the field inaccurate in order to induce more people to make an ID.

There are aspects of plants’ growth that look radically different when they are planted in yards or parks, vs. in the wild. Sometimes these things can make ID more difficult. A key element of ID is habitat, and for anything planted, there is much less information about habitat available, because things can be planted in areas they would not naturally come up. Similarly, their growth habit can be altered, both by pruning, and by the different habitat (trees might grow straight and narrow in a forest, the same species might grow wider with large, low branches if planted in an urban area like next to a street)

When the data about a plant’s wildness is not accurately reported, it can sometimes give a false impression. For example, I might think: “Oh, I didn’t realize that plant would grow there.” and I actually would be correct, because the plant was planted there. This is especially true when people are looking briefly at aggregates of data, rather than going into each individual observation and looking over it in depth.

I wish iNaturalist had a better way to track and filter this stuff. I’m not really sure how to solve the problem though; it seems like it would be tricky to add fields to address this stuff for the search-and-ID feature.

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Speaking of references. For Eurasia http://plantarium.ru is a great source, their filter for identifying plants is the best I’ve seen so far, you have to know Russian though. Also http://www.efloras.org contains whole a lot of great keys to identify plants. I use both a lot.

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And imagine quite a few observations are only a single close up photo of said genitalia or feather.


I also rely heavily on Plants of Pennsylvania, but being located in westernmost NY state along Lake Erie (equidistant from Erie PA and Buffalo NY) cross-reference with a few others. There are similar books available for many regions, often titled “flora of” etc. Michigan Flora (the online version is very useful) is great, and the recent Flora Novae Angliae (covering new england) is also full digitized on the noted Gobotany site (both of these are linked further up in the thread). Further south, Weakley’s most recent Southeastern Flora is also super useful and can be downloaded in full as a PDF. I end up using all of these, especially when getting outside of my home area.


My thought exactly from the first post. The most likely reason in my mind that urban trees are not getting ID attention is because the cultivated tag removes it from the default search criteria. This is tragic. Urban biomes are just as worth studying as rural biomes, especially since urban biomes are the ones that get the most attention from people. (Houses don’t make nature-empty bubbles!) I wanted to do a tree inventory of my neighborhood, but balked because 1) the privacy consideration was unsettled in my mind, and 2) I’d have to flag them all and probably not get much help from the community. I applaud the OP for their project!


this is a well worn conversation so i won’t say much more here except, i don’t think the default matters that much to ‘power identifiers’ who modify and adjust filters extensively for identifying, and probably rarely if ever use the default search. I don’t really ever use it. I think in addition to the reasons discussed before (lack of research grade, etc) there are two reasons less well-discussed here that relate to why these don’t get identified:

-The pool of identifiers of plants seem to tend to be ecologists interested in wild landscapes, rather than gardeners, landscapers and urban foresters interested in the interface between humans and plants. I think there ARE people like that - there are tons of facebook gardening groups and such. We should talk about how to recruit more people like that - maybe some modest features to encourage mapping and identifying of ‘urban forests’, pollinator gardens, etc along with a ‘research grade’ parallel instead of straight track to casual.

-the quality of ‘captive’ plant observations tends to be much lower in my observation, mostly because they seem to be observed a lot by ‘duress users’ (see other thread) and newbies who haven’t learned how to use the site. I personally AM interested in street trees, gardens, etc, and would be more likely to do ID help with good observations of those except they are buried under dozens of blurry houseplants, photos of a lawn with no context, silk flowers, etc. I am not sure the answer to this one, it seems harder.


Apologies if I missed something while skimming through the discussion. I think part of the reason woody plants, speaking independently of other plants, are slow to get identified is because a lot of people do not know how to identify them, and that I would have to blame on low-detail identification guides, such as those that only show a single photo or have misleading descriptions. Most people want to identify a woody plant by leaf or bark, but it isn’t so simple. Some can easily be identified with a plain bark photo, but what so many people fail to account for is variation between individuals, specifically their age. An example would be that the young and smooth bark of a sugar maple looks nothing like the shaggy peeling plates of its older counterpart, or the once again smooth bark of a balding tree that is even older. Most people will only know one of these, and usually it is the one that most commonly appears by itself in identification guides and other resources. I agree with others, that multiple photos are the best way to go when working with woody plants, and most other plants as well, but there is also a need for the observer to know what characteristics can help to identify the specimen. It only takes a single photo of an emergent white pine crown to positively identify it to species, there is no need to take close up photos of needles, cones, bark etc. in that situation, but others like serviceberries are incredibly difficult to identify without many subtle characteristics.


I totally agree and I wrote a long defense of studying cultivated plants here:


That said, this post isn’t the place to discuss this as it’s likely to provoke long, bitter discussions (just a warning). And while I don’t like the way iNaturalist currently treats cultivated plants, I have to agree with @charlie that not flagging things as cultivated isn’t a good solution.


Great idea and that has now been added :)


I know what you are saying here, but there have been some major blow-ups over that approach between members of the iNat community! It does highlight that cultivated plants and captive animals are seen by some as second class organisms, and a solution I see is for the developers to change “Research Grade” to something like “Community Identified” then have a range of biostatus indicators (captive/cultivated, wild, uncertain).


I find that one of the best ways to learn tree ID is to ask an expert. For example, the other day I was looking for info on elm ID, so I found the top elm IDer (who is also the top elm observer) in the province, and asked him for some ID tips. He gave me a rundown of the four most common species and everything I should look for. Asking an expert always helps.

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Noted! I won’t suggest that again:)
Certainly the biostatus indicators could be improved, but ambiguities and disagreements are lilely to persist.

My own observations include some interesting ones - eg mown kikuyu of recreational area invading regen forest margin…one end of the plant is maintained, the other is wild? And when I have pulled it back onto the mown area, it is…? And the wild native plants that I weed in that margin are getting close to being cultivated…as are the benign adventives I support there to provide ground cover and competition to aggressive weed invasions…

Do we have a biostatus name for the seed brought by bird to my house on edge of large wild forest, and cultivated by me to see what it would have grown into if hadn’t landed on concrete? No idea what its parents were, though it seems likely to be an ornamental with a species-history of naturalization and/or invasion.

And if it turns out to be a native to this area, and I transplant it to the edge of the wild forest…what is it then?

So I expect ongoing discussion is part of our future:)

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