Does the Picturethis Plant Identifier Really Work?

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Photo: PictureThis

Question: What do you think of the PictureThis app? 

Constance

Answer: I had tried this app, used to help people identify plants, once before and found it very interesting, but somehow never went any further. Following your question, I tried it again … and here’s what I discovered. 

The PictureThis—Plant Identifier claims to have more than 11,000 species in its searchable database and to be capable of identifying 99% of common species. The idea is to snap the photo of a plant you don’t know, or to download a photo of the plant, and the app will find what species it is, plus supply useful information about the plant.

It claims to use a “revolutionary artificial intelligence technology” in doing so. In other words, it doesn’t just compare plant photos like other plant identification apps, but studies details of the plant’s anatomy to identify it.

My Test

PictureThis ad as it appears in the App Store
This is how the app ad appears in the App Store. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

This is a paid app, but you’re allowed a one-week free trial (read more about that below), so I downloaded it onto my iPhone from the App Store. That was easy enough to do and it was up and functioning right away. 

How to turn on camera in PictureThis app and how to take a picture in PictureThis app.
Just click on the camera button to pull up the camera mode, the point and shoot! Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

I then took it on a tour of my garden and took 10 photos. Again, that was easy enough: it opens with a photo button at the bottom. Click on that to get into camera mode, then just point the phone, adjust and shoot. 

Screenshot of Chinese chives on PictureThis app.
Information page as it appeared after I took a photo of Chinese chives: there is far more information if you scan down. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Instantly, PictureThis displays a page where the plant’s common names, botanical name and even cultural information are displayed. In fact, a lot of information is supplied: scan down and tips, common questions, description, name story, symbolism and even more appear. It’s like a mini portable plant encyclopedia! 

There are all sorts of other features, but I only tested the plant identifier.

How photos appear in PictureThis app.
Some of the 10 plants I took photos of. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

PictureThis turned out to be really very good at plant identification. I tested 10 plants and it got 7 of them spot on. And I’d have to give the 8th a “close enough.” It correctly identified the plant as a geranium (Geranium), but named the wrong species of geranium. I figure most gardeners don’t necessarily want the particulars: knowing the plant is a geranium is already much better than just knowing it as a “plant in my garden.” 

Essentially, the first 5 plants tested were common garden plants and it identified them all correctly (if you include the “close enough” geranium), so I started giving it harder plants to identify, ones that aren’t as common in home gardens. And my home and garden are full of really obscure plants, so that was no problem!

Tougher Plants to Identify

Coleus 'Henna' with cut-edge leaves, red underneath, golden above.
Coleus scutellarioides ‘Henna’: not exactly a run-of-the-mill coleus, yet PictureThis correctly identified it. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

I tried a coleus, which, while not rare, is, such a variable plant that I figured the app might find it difficult to identify. And indeed mine (the cultivar ‘Henna’) is not your typical coleus, with cut leaf edges and an unusual color combination; plus it even changes its appearance considerably under different conditions. Yet PictureThis correctly identified it as a Common Coleus, botanical name Coleus scutellariodes, which is, as of 2018, the new correct name of the coleus (yes, the botanical name of the coleus has been changed often enough to make your head spin!).

So, I took it a step further, and took a shot of a rather unusual fuchsia, Fuchsia triphylla ‘Firecracker’, with dangling coral-red flowers and variegated foliage. 

Fuchsia triphylla ‘Firecracker’, coral pink dangling flowers, variegated leaves.
Fuchsia triphylla ‘Firecracker’. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Dang if it didn’t get it right! Triphylla hybrids fuschia, it said, botanical name Fuschia triphylla. Wow! I was impressed!

Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius), tropical vegetable, huge deeply cut leaves.
Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is not a common vegetable, yet PictureThis knew what it was. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

So, what now could I stump it with? Then I thought of my yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius), a very usual vegetable from South America. Few gardeners know of this plant and I figured there was no way a plant identification app could identify it, but: bam, right on the dot! Yacón, it read, botanical name Smallanthus sonchifolius, and then followed a very interesting description. 

Fails

So far, so good, but…

PictureThis is apparently programmed to always give an answer. From my short experience, at least, it never seems to say, “I don’t know” or “maybe it’s this or that.” So, be aware that when it is wrong, it can be spectacularly wrong. 

Two houseplants: Hoya longifolia with long, narrow, thick green leaves and Kalanchoe beauverdii with long, narrow, thick purplish leaves
Hoya longifolia (left) and Kalanchoe beauverdii (right). True enough, the leaves are similaire, but they are definitely not the same plant. Photos: laidbackgardener.blog & World of Succulents

It identified my Hoya longifolia as being a “Beauver’s widow’s-thrill, botanical name Kalanchoe beauverdii”, for example. Admittedly, I took a shot of the foliage only. Perhaps if I’d included a flower cluster in the shot, it might have done better. Still, the two plants aren’t even the same plant family (Hoya is in the Apocynaceae, Kalanchoe in the Crassulaceae), let alone the same genus or species. And the first is a trailing epiphyte, the second an upright growing succulent. The two plants do share thick, long, narrow leaves, but that’s the only similarity.

Propellor plant (Dischidia albida) with long, twisting stems and succulent leaves and mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) with long trailing green stems and no leaves.
Propellor plant (Dischidia albida) (right) has dangling stems, but also leaves; mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) (left) may have similar stems, but is leafless. Photos: laidbackgardener.blog & http://www.theeveryspace.com

And I tried my “propeller vine” (Dischidia albida), a hanging basket plant, which it mistook for a “Mistletoe cactus, botanical name Rhipsalis baccifera”. Again, no botanical relationship, although both plants are trailing epiphytes with long stringy stems.

Obviously, these misidentifications were way off base, but I had chosen rather obscure plants (and both are indoor plants, too, so maybe PictureThis is not as knowledgeable about houseplants?). Plus, there were indeed physical similarities between the plant suggested and the real one. 

Comparison With PlantSnap

plantdsnap ad showing hands holding cell phone taking pictures of maple leaves.
Photo: kickstarter.com

There is another widely distributed plant identification app: PlantSnap. In fact, it claims to be the most widely used plant identification app in the world. So, I downloaded it as well (again, a free trial) and tried comparing the two. 

First, PlantSnap struck me as more complicated than PictureThis: there is a lot more clicking to get where you want to go. But that’s a minor detail.

Two plants with pink flowers: garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) and carpet-forming Saponaria caespitosa
PlantSnap thought this fairly tall plant (right), which most gardeners would instantly recognize as garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), was the carpet-forming Saponaria caespitosa, or possibly Oxalis decaphylla or Oxalis adenophylla. And it thought Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum) were sweet alyssum! Photos: laidbackgardener.com & http://www.alpine-seeds.com

Worse, it was terrible at plant identification! Of my original 10 test plants, it got only three right! And some that it missed were pretty basic: it didn’t recognize garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), obedience plant (Physostegia virginiana) or even Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum). Also, PlantSnap doesn’t really give a final identification, but rather gives several suggestions with photos and you get to compare them with your plant. That’s fine and maybe even good. However, when it was wrong, as it was most of the time, none of the “suggestions” were even close to the real plant.

If I had bought this app, I would have been verydisappointed.

Warning! The Free Trial Isn’t So Free!

Before going as far as a heartfelt recommendation for PictureThis, I have a major warning for you. The so-called “free trial” is not really free. If you download PictureThis, expect to pay for it … you have to physically cancel your subscription.

I was scheduled to pay $39.99 for what was supposed to be a free trial! Only after I cancelled did the offer to use the app free for a week appear.

I learned this through a quick look at reviews of PictureThis on Google. It showed complaint after complaint about people being billed a year’s fee for their free trial, or even a weekly rate (much more expensive!), so I checked the subscriptions on my iPhone (I’m no tech geek, so I found a site on Google explaining how to cancel an App Store subscription and just followed the steps). 

Sure enough, the PictureThis subscription page showed a list of prices and there was a checkmark next to PictureThis Premium (1 year) at $39.99. Yes, I was being billed 40 bucks for a simple trial! 

I clicked Cancel and received a message that the subscription was canceled but that I could still use the app for free for a week.

So, beware: you can have a free trial, but only if you cancel the subscription.

Plant Information

I didn’t delve too much into the plant information supplied, but it seemed “reasonable.” I did note that some of the details were incorrect (it claimed that Coleus scutellarioides had once been known as Plectranthus amboinicus, but in fact, P. amboinicus is actually a very different plant), but, for the average gardener, who probably only wants to know how to grow the plant, the cultural details are quite acceptable.

Also, the parent company is Chinese, so I’m assuming the English-language information is a translation. That might explain why some of the prose comes across as odd. For example, under information about the obedient plant (Physocarpus virginiana), the app gives the following:

Potting Instructions: Obedient plants can be planted for one year without turning over the pot. 

I assume that means repot annually.

And there is plenty more odd and strangely flowery language, but most people could probably figure out what the text means.

Summary

I found the PictureThis app really incredible for plant identification. It’s very good at what it does, and the plants it missed in my trial were in the “pretty obscure” category. Still, $39.99 a year is a lot of moola for something you probably won’t use very often. 

My suggestion? If you’re going on a garden tour or some other precise situation where you would be using the app frequently for a short period, download the app, find the Subscriptions page on your phone and correct it so you’re on a weekly or monthly plan, as needed. 

Of course, if you’re an intrepid plant explorer and have a daily need for plant identification, or if you want to build up your own personal plant encyclopedia of the plants you grow (called My Collections) you can consult at any time, just download the PictureThis app. You’ll find you’re already signed up for a full year.

5 thoughts on “Does the Picturethis Plant Identifier Really Work?

  1. That sounds about right. I know someone who used one of these apps. I do not know which one. It is accurate most of the time. A few are close enough. Even fewer are completely wrong. What annoys me is when someone tells me that I am wrong if I try to correct the information that he or she got from their app!

  2. Bryanna

    What’s worrying to me about these apps is if someone decides to use them on a foraging trip. Pedantry is a virtue in proper plant identification, and “close enough” can potentially get someone sick or worse via a poisonous look-alike (especially if they get complacent about the information given to them, as many are wont to do). Although I do see their value for being a launching pad for properly identifying it, or just curiosity or basic garden stuff, like you said.

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