Whether you’ve just moved into a new garden where everything’s a mystery, or see something unfamiliar sprouting in a garden you’ve had for years, a good way to figure out its name is by taking a photo and sharing it with knowledgeable friends and acquaintances. However, your success at this depends not just on your friends’ plant identification skills, but also on what kinds of photos you provide them. A photo of a blurry leaf and a description of the plant that says it’s about a foot high and has yellow flowers isn’t likely to get you an accurate description. I’ve been on the receiving end of those photos and seen a large number of them posted to gardening forums I’m part of.
So, here are suggestions of what to do when you’re photographing plants in order to get help identifying them. They apply whether you’re using the camera on your cell phone or the latest and greatest digital camera.
Technically, there are three things that will improve your likelihood of successful i.d. right off the bat:
• Make sure your photos are in focus.
• Turn off the flash on your camera and use natural light. It gives a truer representation of colour and texture.
• Avoid taking photos when the sun is extremely bright (e.g. high noon, on a sunny day) or at dusk/dawn. An overcast day is best for capturing an accurate plant photo.
In terms of composition, I suggest taking at least three photos:
1. The whole plant filling the frame (i.e. you can see the top of the plant at the top of the picture and the ground/soil at the bottom of the picture)
2. Close up of a single leaf, with the entire leaf in the frame of the picture
3. Close up of a single flower or berry (if the plant has flowers or berries)
I’ll demonstrate with some photos I took of a Clary Sage (Salvia Sclarea) at the New York Botanical Garden last year. Forgive the plant label in the middle (no need to seek out the i.d. of this plant!) but shows I practice what I preach–I took these photos as a visual record of this plant for myself, so that I would be able to identify it in future if I came across it at a plant sale. Ideally, I wouldn’t have shot these photos in the middle of the day in bright sun, but that was what it was like the day I visited the NYBG.
Tip for crowded gardens: If it’s hard to see the mystery plant amidst the rest of your garden, especially for the detailed close ups, you can hold a piece of paper or cardboard or something solid coloured right behind the plant. I’ve used this technique when I wanted to isolate a single garlic plant with its scape for a previous blog post.
With these tips in mind you’re on your way to taking photos that will help your plant expert help you! Besides the photos they’ll also want to know where the plant is growing and whether it’s in a spot that receives lots of direct sun (i.e. 6+ hours) or is shady.
If you’re wondering what plant is pictured in the feature image at the top of this blog post, it’s Persicaria virginiana ‘Painter’s Palette‘. I wrote about it in a previous post on What Grows in Shade.