Wouldn’t it be nice to get to know trees while they’re still around? Leafsnap can help. The new app, developed by a team of researchers at Columbia, University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, contains a database of beautiful photos of leaves, barks, flowers, and fruits. All the lazy naturalist has to do to identify a tree is take a picture of one little leaf.

It turns out, however, that you can't just point your iPhone camera at a tree, snap a picture, and find out what in the world it is. After gathering a leaf, fruit, flower or other specimen, you must place it on a white background (although apparently a New York City sidewalk qualifies), center the specimen in the viewfinder, and take a picture.

The app gives you a list of possible identifications, with the most likely options at the top, like one of those “which celebrity do you look like” things that was going around Facebook. I'm reasonably sure now that the tree outside my apartment building is some sort of oak tree, but couldn't really tell you if it's a scarlet oak (quercus coccinea), a pin oak (quercus plaustris), or a spanish oak (quercus falcata). If anyone asks, though, I'm going with pin oak, because why not?

Next in development: An app for the next generation, which answers the question “what’s a tree?”

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