Careful With That Plant ID App

I love plant ID apps. I really do.

They have been so helpful when I have been overseas trying to get to grips with the local flora and unable to find a plant guide.

They do, however, come with a caveat.

Plant ID apps are not 100% accurate.

DO NOT RELY ON THEM.

They are just a starting point. A ‘best guess’.

And they can be really useful as a first step.

Only as a first step!

Last week a friend and colleague posted online:

“Plant ID/foraging apps – I hope that none of you are using these now… If you have one of these apps on your phone then I highly recommend that you delete it!”

Although I understood where my friend was coming from, I got immediately ‘plugged in’.

You don’t stop a child hurting themselves from climbing a tree by banning tree climbing.

You teach them how to climb a tree and make it very clear what the dangers are.

You teach them respect and awareness of the context they find themselves in. In this instance tree climbing.

Likewise, you don’t ban cars because some people drive dangerously and occasionally someone gets killed.

Instead, you teach people how to drive safely and you point out the dangers.

It is the same with plant identification apps.

You don’t tell people to delete them from their phones or start a crusade against them.

You teach people how to use them.

They are not going away, so it is far better to embrace the new technology than ’tilt at windmills’. As my friend Marc Williams says:

It’s not either-or but both and more.

Plant ID apps are just one small part of a ‘botanical toolkit’. They serve a very real purpose for recording the biodiversity of planet earth. I’ll be writing about this aspect in a future article.

It is the minority, the very small minority who will and always will throw rationality and caution, to the wind.

I have a saying:

The ecosystem takes out stupid people.

It’s harsh, very harsh. It is also true.

If you don’t adhere to basic protocols when foraging you can hurt yourself.

Maybe as foraging teachers we just flat out need to throw in the towel and just quit?

I mean how irresponsible to teach foraging because someone, somewhere is going to hurt themselves.

Law of averages it’s going to happen. Has happened.

Do we ban foraging because a tiny minority of people are just foolhardy?

No, instead we teach people how to forage safely while at the same time pointing out the (very real) dangers that exist.

It’s a fine line.

Teaching respect for the natural world without instilling fear.

Call me old fashioned, but when I grew up as a child I learnt:

  • how to play conkers without crippling my hand
  • climb a tree without killing myself
  • do handstands without developing a head injury
  • jump off walls without breaking my legs
  • swim across rivers without drowning
  • use a catapult without blinding someone
  • shoot a gun without blasting my foot (or anyone else in near proximity for that matter) to bits.

I was taught to respect the tool or activity I was using or engaged in.

I wasn’t stopped or the tool taken off me. I was simply taught to ‘respect the context’.

So I replied to my friend:

If we twitch every time someone does something stupid and irrational you’ll be policing the planet for eternity, “for their own good”.

And I meant it.

So how, as foraging teachers, do we teach people without becoming ‘surrogate parents’?

How do we ‘teach empowerment’ rather than ‘teach dependency’.

I’ve always joked that if someone comes back to a foraging course of mine, then I haven’t done my job.

I’m obviously being flippant. Something I am very good at.

But there is a serious message in that statement.

As foraging teachers, we are ultimately doing ourselves out of a job.

Why, because a good teacher not only teaches the subject to hand but also teaches critical thinking skills.

Rather than continually answer every question, a good teacher will gently encourage the student to try and find the answer themselves. Come to their own conclusions. Answer their own questions.

This can never happen while the student is spoon-fed answers every time they ask a question.

That is the path to dependency. And it is an epidemic in our culture.

The culture teaches us to be like this from cradle to grave.

As teachers, we need to resist this with every fibre of our being.

In Buddhism, quite often, if you ask a monk a question they will gently pass it back to you.

They will teach you how to develop ‘insight’.

So you become your own Buddha. No need for the temple. The rituals. The teacher. The guru.

As teachers, we need to be liberators. Encourage people to become more self-reliant and independent NOT more dependent and reliant on us.

So how do we do this?

It’s actually very, very simple.

You teach people how to forage safely while pointing out the potential dangers.

And the very first rule is:

Never eat or nibble any plant you cannot ID with 100% accuracy.

Period!

Break the rule. Face the consequences.

Break the rule of gravity. Try and jump off a 500-foot cliff without a parachute or anything beneath you to break your fall (like a tree). You will face very real consequences.

That’s not spreading fear. It’s pointing out the obvious. It’s not a ‘possible’ its a certainty. It’s not a belief. It’s a fact.

So what does this have to do with plant identification apps?

Simple.

Rather than tell people to never use them and to delete them from their phones.

Be a responsible teacher and use logic like this:

  • Plant ID apps are not 100% accurate.
  • As a result, YOU cannot be 100% certain they have ID’d the plant you are researching correctly.
  • If you are not 100% certain, then you must follow the golden rule of foraging.
  • Never eat or nibble any plant you cannot ID with 100% accuracy.

To try and molly-coddle everyone who chooses to break this rule means you will always be in distress.

The evidence is in… some people will take very stupid risks with their life.

There are people who will still nibble and eat poisonous and toxic plants.

Usually, because they think ‘nature is a supermarket’ and conforms to the same rules. It doesn’t.

I have had people on my foraging courses gleefully announce that they have nibbled on loads of plants without knowing what they were and have come to no harm.

And my reply is always:

It’s just a matter of time.

I have people in my customer only Facebook group declare they have nibbled and eaten plants without knowing what they are.

They have broken the golden rule:

Never eat or nibble any plant you cannot ID with 100% accuracy.

And because plant identification apps are not 100% accurate.

DO NOT rely on them.

They are just a starting point. A ‘best guess’.

Another friend chimed into a similar “don’t use plant ID apps” discussion, by saying:

When you use a book, you know it’s down to you because you make the final ID choice. When you use an app, the app makes the choice. There is a psychological difference in trusting the outcome.

I kind of agreed with her, I saw her point, so replied:

Dunno about that. Apps usually give you a selection with a ‘best guess’ at the top, so the decision is still up to the person.

Either way, the point is, you will never be 100% certain that the plant ID app you use will be 100% accurate in the results it returns.

For want of sounding like a broken record:

Plant ID apps are just a ‘best guess’ ipso facto you cannot be absolutely certain they have identified a plant with 100% accuracy.

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The Forager’s Golden Rule

Never eat or nibble any plant you cannot ID with 100% accuracy.

Plant ID Apps Are Not 100% Accurate!

So you have to explore deeper. Only use the plant ID app as a ‘best guess’, then get off your screen and the internet and open a real, physical book called a Wild Flower Key.

Yes, it will take work. There is no rush. Start slow and increase and deepen your botanical knowledge one plant at a time.

Further Reading

Share Your Experience. Leave A Note For Others

  1. Totally agree with what you have written. I resist the temptation to taste any plant I am uncertain about but it is hard as I am a Nutritionist and always tasting things! I am on my second plant app download. The first was not too helpful, the second app Plant Snap has been a bit mixed but was helpful when I was walking the Paiva Walkway in Portugal. I have found the Eatweeds group amazingly helpful when I posted about what turned out to be three cornered leek.

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  2. New to your site and already a very happy bunny, anyone who spent time learning to play conkers without hurting themselves has my respect….and more importantly I need to feel I can trust who is doing the teaching. I don’t ‘taste’ anything, way too scary for me due to a very near incident a long time ago when I didn’t know what Hemlock was and mis-identified it, luckily I was very young and with an adult who corrected me…but it was a ‘little lesson’ in mis-identity that has stayed with me all these long years later 馃檪

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  3. I once looked at Bryonia tips and thought hmmm wonder if that is wild asparagus growing out of the top of the hedge It was just a thought and I know what wild asparagus looks like BUT….I could have picked some…..but I didn’t:) So I am totally with you dont nibble unless you are sure.

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  4. Absolutely right, but thanks for underlining and reinforcing again and again. All that green stuff looks so tempting, but in this case temptation could be a killer.

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  5. Dear Robin,

    This is a great post on an ever more important subject! Thanks for addressing it and the shout as to my work as well!

    Cheers, marc

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  6. I am a complete beginner at foragejng and as such am very grateful for the new book Edible and Medicinal plants of GT Britain and Ireland which I have just received .
    As we live in the Forest of Dean this is a fantastic resource for us.
    Having read the wise warnings above for your amusement I will recount a story from my 莽hidhood
    My mother had a lovely friend we called her Aunty Violet one day when we were walking and passing under a yew tree she stretched up and picked the bright red fleshy berries
    My mother went ballistic and ranted at her for quite a while complaining about being a bad influence and foolhardy in front of a six year old .
    At the time I thought my mother was harsh as aunty Violet was a great friend to us children.
    But of course mother was right and as a result of that incident I have never test nibbled anything .
    Sorry for wittering on but the admonitions above brought it all flooding back.

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  7. You made some good points. Especially about not allowing kids to try things with guidance and taught how to be aware and the dangers. I鈥檓 terrible and the type of parent that shields to much by not letting them climb trees etc.
    I see where you鈥檙e coming from and need to relax more and let them find that adventure I grew up with.

    I shall be using a foraging app when I go out to learn but will not eat anything because the app says it ok. I think it will be fun to use and see what we can find and hopefully see if I can get a 100% id on forums to build up confidence. I鈥檓 aiming to get on some foraging courses soon to. I think the app will help in getting an understanding and help with identifying when we eventually get on the courses.

    Thank you for the helpful and good read 馃檪

    Reply

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