Why don't descriptions tend to include senses other than sight and sound?

I am an enthusiastic amateur. One of the things I really miss in a lot of species descriptions when I am trying to identify things are the features that cannot be independently identified over the internet, but which a knowledgeable naturalist at my elbow (should i be lucky enough to have one) would point out, for example that hange hange leaves feel a bit like lightly sweaty skin, or the many distinctive smells, eg:

  • crushed leaves that smell like lemon

  • a comment that the flowers are strongly scented, and maybe whether this is only at night

*kakapo bird described as having a musty-sweet odor

  • the distinctive smell of certain species scat (otter spraint has a musky/ fishy smell, with "a sweet taint surprisingly similar to jasmine tea).

  • A friend told me recently he could identify being in a tanekaha forest with his eyes shut because of the distinctive smell of the leaf mould.

In the case of plant species that have been described a long time ago from dried specimens, perhaps by people who never actually saw the plant in situ, this is perhaps less surprising I guess, but still.

If wine connoisseurs and perfumers can do it?

Yes, it is not something we can record in the way we do a sound or a sighting for independent verification, but is there any other reason why do we seem to ignore these important senses …? If it is simply because we don’t think to, and if so, is there a way we can ‘nudge’ people to record distinctive sensory associations?


I don’t know. Many plant descriptions in my area include comments regarding scent, even from dried specimens.

From https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/264625#page/220/mode/1up “imparts a distinct lemon odour”

The scent is described in more detail on the following page (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/264625#page/221/mode/1up)

For rainforest plants in my area most keys include a description of the scent (e.g. of crushed leaves), if present, as scent is often an important character. Maybe it’s a locality thing?

1 Like

I have definitely included touch (sticky to touch) in descriptions of wild tobaccos but have been remiss in not mentioning that even lightly touching Solanum erianthum will require washing my hands to get the stink off whereas often I intentionally crush Pluchea carolinensis leaves between my fingers and blissfully sniff at them all day because they smell of cloves, of memories, of warm kitchens.


I just randomly read the descriptions of some rainforest plants in the key I mainly use. Most descriptions include a comment about aroma if applicable. And there’s stuff like (just a random selection):

“leaves with a strong camphor smell when crushed”
“leaves aromatic when crushed”
“leaves with a strong sassafras smell when crushed”
“petioles of fresh leaves smell like roast mutton when broken”
“leaves strongly aromatic when crushed”
“leaves lemon-scented when crushed”

Most descriptions, where applicable, also mention sap (clear, milky, sticky) so I think it must depend on the author of the key


I want to say it’s partly driven by caution where taking a photo and identify later avoids such interactions:

But honestly, I mostly forget to touch and smell plants because I’m focused on taking photos. Smells are difficult to describe. For example, there’s something tomato-like about the smell coming from Datura wrightii leaves when touched, but also something distinct that I can only describe as a chemical smell. Not exactly helpful…


Smells are very subjective, so I don’t find them very useful.
Nigella seed, for example - I think it smells great, but my partner thinks it smells exactly like pencil erasers. Or matsutake mushrooms, they smell like conifer needles and cinnamon to me, but to other people they smell like sweaty old socks.

Most of the time, the smells my mushroom ID books describe are nothing like what I actually smell from those species, so I’ve kind of stopped bothering.

Boy, I WISH it only lasted 20 minutes for me. It’s about 3 hours of intense stinging, and then a stinging sensation every time I touch that area for a couple of days after. And the blisters usually leave scars. It’s a good thing it’s delicious, or I’d really hate the stuff.


I don’t think that I ignore them. It’s more that I’ll only write them down on the observation occasionally. I believe that touch and textures - apart from perhaps sticky can often be inferred from a photo - if it is rough, smooth, or hairy, for example.

Yep, I think that is a good reason. I avoid touching some things just in case it bites or causes stinging or itching.

I agree. I also find it quite challenging to describe some smells.

Like you can use sweet, musty, or foul as general descriptors. Other scents smell like that thing, and I wouldn’t know how to describe them otherwise. For example, crushed eucalypt leaves or the smell of pee ants (actually, that name might align with some people’s sense of smell).

I recorded a smell description the other day for an observation of a flowering vine I found. I know that I sometimes record smells, moisture, and texture. Perhaps, I’ll pay more attention to recording the sensory aspects of observations if something stands out.


In many cases I am just referring to the descriptions available through iNat itself - which is generally wikipedia. It sounds like you have access to much more specialist resources than I do and perhaps plants that have been studied more intensely.

1 Like

Locality could be a factor: I’m from New Zealand where species have often been described less than 180 years ago by Western Sci, and the extensive indigenous Maori knowledge has sometimes been lost or is not widely known.

Maori had developed their own perfumes, but we don’t seem to know much about what they were made from. Dr Mere Whaanga was recently interviewed on RNZ about this (https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/countrylife/audio/2018860821/a-scent-of-the-past-on-mahia-peninsula) and spoke particularly about the beautiful scent of white rata. I consulted iNat plus at least 5 other well respected sources: there are about three species of white rata, none of them mentioned anything about scent, let alone whether the scent was from leaves or blossom. Not even the native plant nurseries who occasionally stock white rata made any mention of it - you’d think it would be a selling point! This is just one example.

RE Smells are very subjective - yes indeed, our perception of smells is very individual, but even just mentioning that something has a strong smell is helpful to amateurs like me.
Paesia scaberula, the ring fern or mātata is one of the few NZ species I’ve come across where the description mentions a ‘distinctive smell’ but talking to a more experienced botanical friend, the smell is most noticeable on a sunny day. Other plants are smelly only at night, and still other species (like male deer) at certain times of year. Given that iNat photo observations are usually time stamped, and give you a rough idea of lighting conditions, maybe we are missing out on identifying some of these interesting patterns?


Fynbos is full of fragrant plants - including Pelargonium and buchu which are commercially used for food flavouring.

The first plant hikers are taught is blister bush - apparently activated by sun on affected skin. Such enticing ‘celery’ leaves it looks harmless.


A recently published Austrian guide for the identification of ants :ant: in the field includes smell and taste at several steps in the ID key


Daunting - have you ever accidentally eaten an ant!

Favoring the objective and dismissing the subjective is a broad scientific and cultural phenomena. Read Larry Malerba’s books like “Metaphysics and Medicine” for a thought-provoking challenge to our Western biases.
I think the focus on documentable, evidence-based observations and on accumulating data can blind us to the immersive experience of nature and from noticing connections between ourselves and the inter-connected web of life around us. We upload thousands of photos (or recordings), but do we tell stories about what we see, feel, hear, taste, touch? If we did, who would read them?
“You will see what you are looking for…” —Carl Van


Sight and sound tend to be less ‘abstract’ since they can be supported by photographs and audio recordings respectively.

For touch, smell, and taste, the description can be very subjective, and can vary from place to place and culture to culture. Also if you encounter something unknown, perhaps it isnt best to poke it, sniff it, or even lick it!

Purposefully! But it was prepared.

If you ever checked fungi observations you can see tons of smell and taste descriptions. People only add what is needed for an id, less than 1% of descriptions are about something else (if we don’t take autogenerated descriptions).

This is an awesome thread! Thanks @catchwords for starting it!

I want to echo @becksnyc that dismissing scent for being difficult/recalcitrant in the paradigm we’re used to precludes a lot of deep, useful, pleasurable engagement with the world.

There’s an interesting conflict between colloquial uses of the words “subjective”, “objective”, and “empirical” that olfaction brings to the foreground. When two people interpret the smell of a mushroom two different ways, it’s not likely that they are projecting an idea of what they want scent to be, nor is it likely that they are imposing some value system on the aroma – rather the opposite. They are usually just making an honest effort to describe the empirical data provided by their olfactory system (though it may be colored by context – for example if they’ve just plucked a Deconica from its dung substrate).

When mushroom books include descriptions of odor that don’t immediately jive with your impressions, that’s not really an insurmountable problem (more a matter of what I call “calibration”), nor is it really one that can be perfectly remedied, because people actually smell the same inputs differently – due to variation in genetics as well as the peculiar ways in which olfactory stimuli are processed.

The long-term goal for communication is to stabilize the vocabulary we use to refer to sensory phenomena – to create reasonably-well-shared reference words, without insisting that they map to exactly the same impressions or positive/negative valence judgements.

If you want to delve into the topic of Olfaction a lot more, check out the book “Smellosophy” by Ann-Sophie Barwich, Harold McGee’s “Deep Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells”, and Nuri McBride’s lectures and workshops.

I recently put together a lecture about this topic, and have been delivering it around Californa, and currently in Washington this week. Maybe I will put up a polished/edited version on YouTube, or do a series of blog posts or something.

Back to the original question: With the above-noted provisos regarding safety (don’t touch irritating plants), I think observers certainly should be encouraged to make better use of Descriptions, Tags, Fields, and especially the Journal and List functionality on iNaturalist to develop and document their Olfactory abilities.


I think we use sight and sound most here because we’re dealing with organisms through the computer, which is built to handle sight and sound but not touch or scent. It’s often frustrating to look at a photo and know that if I were there and felt the plant I’d be able to ID it, but I can’t from the photo! (I’ve used identification keys that don’t including the skunk-like, clinging odor of Navarretia squarrosa, and they’re frustrating.)

Also, English lacks words for scent that are comparable to our words for colors, for example. Yes, wine connoisseurs and those working with perfumes have a languages for scents that work, but most of us don’t. We’re stuck with comparative terms, e.g. “like a lemon.” I did read of one local language with directly descriptive terms for scents – I hope that one is not lost, as so many have been.

A complication is that scents can evoke emotions in a way that sights and sounds rarely do. That does give scents a subjective component that can complicate description, at least in English. That’s not a bad thing and doesn’t mean scents aren’t useful for identification and many other purposes, but it is a complication.

So all in all, I think including at least obvious scents and textures in descriptions and observation notes is good, but it can be complicated.



Not accidentally, but deliberatly - and I still have regrets…

Why is that? I told the story here: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/scents-and-odors/12553/25?u=carnifex

1 Like