Ralph Gardner Jr : What's That Plant? | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr : What's That Plant?

Jul 18, 2020

Imagine if there was a way to make yourself more intelligent. A pill you could take without side effects – except, perhaps, to make you insufferable – or a breakfast drink after whose consumption you’d actually know what you were talking about.

Well now there is. It’s not an edible. It’s an app called Picture This and I recently downloaded it on my phone. One caveat. It won’t increase your store of the entirety of human knowledge. It won’t help you think more lucidly or logically. That’s up to you. But what it will do is greatly add to your storehouse of information regarding one discreet but valuable and important aspect of life on Earth and our relationship to it – trees and plants.

Here’s how it works. You open the app, aim your phone’s camera at the mystery plant or tree or, in the case of our backyard, weed you want identified and shoot. I was excited to download an app a few years back, maybe more than a few, that promised to do much the same. There was only one problem – it was cumbersome and didn’t work.

You’d have to take a leaf from the suspect tree, place it on a white sheet of paper, photograph it and then… it came up blank. The technology has improved since then. The only thing that seems to prevent Picture This from identifying your specimen is a poor cellular connection. But even then the app will store the photo and identify it once the connection improves.

Just in case my delight having Picture This reside on my phone in the company of my apps for the New York Times, the Washington Post, C-Span (I know, I’m something of a nerd) ESPN and Hannaford supermarkets – that reminds me that I’ve neglected to redeem my quarterly points – makes me sound like a salesperson for the app I’m decidedly not.

Thus far I haven’t paid for it. You should. I should. But you don’t have to if you’re will to suffer the annoyance of X-ing out of their solicitation to purchase the service every time you open the app.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest this app, or any app, has changed my life. What it has done, however, has made me aware that low-grade stress is the cost of ignorance, not that that seems to bother a lot of people. It’s annoying not to know what you’re looking at.

I should probably also mention that the most dangerous among us are those who are convinced of their wisdom. What we know is so small compared to what we don’t know. Thus, the only sound position is one of humility.

Having stipulated that, until now I’d walk through the woods recognizing perhaps a quarter of the trees and plants I saw and even that’s giving myself too much credit. There seemed but two options to enhance my knowledge – invite someone who knew his or her stuff to help me out, perhaps a paid professional – or consult a book.

But the maddening thing about trying to look up trees and plants in books is that they often present so differently from their description or photograph that you can’t be sure you’ve nailed the identification. And even if you do there’s no guarantee you’ll remember the thing’s name the next time you encounter it.

The alternate, which I’ve pursued until now, is to go through life an ignoramus occasionally stopping to admire something attention-getting, for example if it sported a colorful flower, but mostly feeling vaguely alienated from much of the natural world.

I’m starting to get a grasp on the local bird population but I feel the same way about insects. There’s so many species that with the exception of a few stars or villains of the bug world – mosquitos, monarch butterflies, dragonflies – you give up. Now there are apps to help identify insects, too.

But Picture This solves the problem. If I forget the name of something I’ve previously identified – red clover, lanceleaf figwort, bull thistle, brocade moss, Fendler’s meadow-rue – I can just scroll down and remind myself.

For example, there’s a thick-stemmed plant that can grow to six feet or more with soft, furry leaves “that feel like flannel,” according to the app, and feature tiny densely grouped yellow flowers at its top that never seem to bud simultaneously. You’d know what I’m talking about if you saw it. It grows all over the place.

Now I know its name is common mullein. Also known as Beggar’s blanket, Aaron’s Rod and Jupiter’s staff. It has a history of extensive medical use, especially in colonial times and the flowers are known to have a sedative effect when brewed with tea.

My daughter has been after me to plant milkweed, a favorite of monarch butterflies, to help these endangered migratory beauties. Turns out we already have milkweed at our pond. At least two kinds of milkweed – common and swamp. I spotted my first monarch of the season feeding a few days ago on the swamp milkweed.

The world feels ever slightly less precarious and more satisfying knowing we harbor these two species and are doing our small part to help monarchs in their struggle to survive. Also, I’ll think twice the next time I consider taking a weed eater to them.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.