Plant Identification and the ‘Angela app’

Nessie Ramm, August 2019

Mid way through her morning emails, Dr. Angela Brennan, the estate ecologist, walks through the common room on her way to make tea. And I’m ready. I’m armed with a plant which I’ve gathered from part of the estate on my way in to work.

In what’s become known as my Angela Ambush there follows a flurry of questions as she identifies the specimen and we discuss whether I should include it in my mural, and if so, in which habitat. She never fails – of course. Ever patient, she greets even the most mundane sample with the warmth of an old friend. Sometimes, with a more unusual sample there is need for books and keys to choose between closely related species; the difference might only be revealed by the presence of hairs or a tiny feature at the base of a leaf. And it’s not always an exact science. More than once my prized specimen (for which I have mentally prepared a space on the wall) has turned out to be a hybrid between two plant cousins, showing characteristics of both. Those end up on the compost heap without ever getting their 15 minutes of fame. Each plant that gets approval however will be masking taped to the wall so I can paint it just how it is, directly from life.

Despite the ordered appearance of neat botanical books, my morning chats with Angela are a reminder that nature is messy, it abhors an edge. We humans have need to categorise and deliniate, it gives us a way in to the complexity and enables us to know what there is to know. It’s what my mural is for. But that’s just us. Nature shrugs off the edge and the category – plants hybridise, woodland melts into grassland through a gradual zone which defies a line on a map. There are hundreds of different sub-species of blackberry, start looking and you will see what I mean – the flowers range from white to very pink, (and berries from delicious to mediocre). On top of this each plant is shaped by its environment – something that will grow to several feet tall given ideal conditions can survive at a few inches tall on poor nutrients or in a mown lawn.

Given all this variability, the tools of identification are not so much a set of neat pigeon holes in which to place species as a series of way markers with which to orientate oneself in the wilderness. I am painting those waymarkers here in the Weald. My task is to represent native species which are endemic to the area and found on estate land. As well as being decorative, the mural is intended as an aid to plant identification. I am painting each with its common name alongside so that staff and visitors alike can ‘look them up’ on the wall without having to work through a book.

The first test of this comes when the local brownie pack arrive for their annual tractor ride and picnic. They are challenged to a plant identification game, in which they are given 10 leaves and 10 flowers detatched from one another. They are able to pair them up from the mural – a success! 

Nature is messy, it abhors an edge.…”

A second test comes shortly afterwards. The sound of a long stride in the hall tells me that Neil, the Estate Manager, is approaching (working with my face to the wall in a thoroughfare means I am able to identify most staff by the sound of their footsteps.) He is testing out the digital approach – a plant iD app on his mobile phone, potentially something useful for staff in the field.

My mural passes this test too – at least at first when we show the app a simple and distinct plant. The algorithm seems to be based on leaf shape combined with flower colour, which works well when faced with something typical. There is no clear answer however when we present it with something a little more challenging- a leaf seen obliquely or flowers in bud. At least we are impressed that the app actually confesses it doesn’t really know the answer and comes up with list of possible plant families.

It’s no surprise the app is a little lost here – much of a plant’s identification can be gleaned from the habitat it’s found in, which the app cannot take into account. An ecologist could identify a withered twig or brown leaf just by understanding the landscape. So often when I ambush Angela with a plant her first question is ‘where did you find it?’

Long after I’m gone I hope the mural I leave behind will be a useful way to celebrate and identify Wealden flora. Of course while I’m here my ambition is to surprise Angela into a shriek of delight with something rare or new to the estate.

I thought I’d done it when I took photos of a strange orchid which I had never seen before. The unmissable feature I proudly showed Angela was the presence of four (and only four) big roundish leaves. The quick look in a book which I’d made revealed nothing like it. There was perhaps half a second’s hesitation at most as Angela considered this. Then she turned to a particular page in the book with confidence. My four-leaved orchid turned out to be a ‘twayblade’ – a two-leaved orchid with a poor aptitude for maths!  A beautiful find but not a mysterious new species. I was slightly disappointed but in awe.

Once again the subtleties of plant identification were perfectly demonstrated. Forget digital identification, give me The Angela App every time! As long as every now and again I remember to allow her to get all the way to the kitchen to make tea.