Smart Plants

The Flora of Virginia’s new mobile app is the 21st century version of the classic botany card.

Its flowers had five butter-yellow petals, and its leaves were wide and toothy. You spotted the plant growing near a trail on your last hike in the Shenandoah National Park, but what was it? Would it grow well in your garden at home? You left that day without knowing, but you’ll be able to answer these questions and more on the spot when the Flora of Virginia Project’s new mobile app is released in October.

Rooted in serious botany, the app will put the full contents of the Flora of Virginia into your pocket. Published in 2012, the Flora describes 3,164 plant species native to, or naturalized in Virginia—it is the first plant manual for the state since the mid-1700s. But the 1,600-page tome weighs seven pounds (that’s a lot to carry), which means that the app has the dual advantage of making it simpler to identify plants and putting less stress on your sacroiliac joint. And for the gardener, the app, which will run on Android and iOS devices, doubles as a native-plant selection tool.

The app was conceived and begun in 2010 while the Flora was still in production. It was four years later that Flora co-author Chris Ludwig, chief biologist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (one of the project’s partners) and the project’s executive director at the time, came up with the idea of dividing our 3,164 plants into 11 major groups (conifers, ferns, orchids, grasses) and picking for each a small set of diagnostic traits that would allow users to identify plants through a screen-tapping process of elimination. 

Plant identification has traditionally employed a laborious but effective method that makes full use of the unique and difficult lingo of the academic botanist. While the app will include that method, it will also offer a new approach designed to appeal to a wider audience by employing language and logic simple enough for the lay user. In fact, it uses icons, and very little language at all.

To identify a plant you find on your property or on your travels, you’ll be asked first to select the major group to which your mystery plant belongs. (Is it grasslike? A fern? A daisylike wildflower? A tree or shrub with leaves rather than needles?) Tap an icon for the right group and you will be redirected to its screen. There, you’ll select the county (or let the device assign it for you), then tap the icon depicting the moisture and shade levels of the site. Each tap eliminates many species, narrowing the possibilities. Continue then with physical characteristics, such as flower color, number of petals, leaf arrangement or hairiness (characters listed are unique to each major group), tapping the icon that best describes your mystery plant. Thumbnail photos and descriptions will help you hone in on your ID.

To select native plants best suited to your garden at home, you’ll follow the same steps: Select major plant group, county (cities have been merged with the most logical contiguous county for the app), moisture, shade and physical characteristics. Tapping a “Show” button will display a custom list of species tuned to your garden. (Note: Any native you plant should be nursery grown—overharvesting from the wild is threatening many populations, and the plants often don’t survive when transplanted.)

The Flora team hopes the app will encourage Virginia gardeners to plant more native species and even begin replacing nonnatives with natives that offer similar colors or better value for pollinators and wildlife. 

By helping you tailor your native plantings to your site, the app will help you plant for success. 


This article originally appeared in our October 2017 issue. Bland Crowder is the executive director of the Flora of Virginia Project. The Flora of Virginia Mobile App is now available via Google Play and the App Store. For more information, go to FloraOfVirginia.org

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