Science, Tech & Environment

An app that identifies trees


Screenshot of the LeafSnap app (Image from LeafSnap app download page in iTunes)

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The LeafSnap iPhone app, which took eight years to develop, features a 10,000-image database which allows users to identify different species of trees by taking pictures of leaves and uploading them. The leaves in the pictures are segmented into basic shapes, compared to existing images in the database, then matched with a specific three. The database currently features 200 species primarily from Central Park in New York City, and Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C.

John Kress, the Chief Botanist at the Smithsonian Institution, helped develop the app. Kress says leaves are the best method for identifying trees because they're two dimensional, which makes them easier to work with than flowers or fruits, which are three dimentional. Also, leaves have a lot of information on them because, "it's not only the basic shape, but it's the lobes on the leaves, it's the little serrations or the smooth edges -- all of that helps us identify what species it is."

The makers of the app plan to expand the database to include species found in the Northeast, areas east of the Mississippi River and beyond. They also plan to release an Android version of the app in the fall.

One limitation of the app is that it requires the user to be connected to a wireless network to function.

Kress says there's already a lot of interest from teachers who want the app to be adapted for classrooms.

The app is free to download -- get more information here.

Read transcript of Living on Earth's interview with John Kress.


Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."