I ONCE BOUGHT a compass. It seemed like a handy thing to have. While not generally prone to reading instructions, this time I did. The enclosed leaflet said something to the effect of, “If the compass is wrong, shake it until it points in the correct direction.”
Price-wise it was not exactly the Rolex of compasses so I wasn’t expecting much. Except direction. Being right a quarter of the time, with any luck, was not great odds of getting anywhere. But when it was right, it was right, so there was that. And it was cheap.
Even cheaper, as in free, and somewhat more reliable was an app suggested by Baby for identifying all of those plants I’ve planted and lost the tags for.
PictureThis uploads to your phone: You point it at a leaf or flower, and it’s supposed to tell you what you’re looking at—although in most cases, you’ll get several choices of what it could be. Which means, it might be right some of the time. Did I say it was free?
Taking it out for a test run, I pointed it at plants that I already recognized, a control group I suppose you’d call it. Very scientific.
A shot of a pink geranium in one of the upstairs window boxes brings up three possibilities, along with photos: Impala lily, Mandevilla plant and garlic vine. A fourth option is “no match” which, when selected, lets you ask other subscribers if they have any ideas.
You can also insert the name of the plant if you know it, though if you already know it why are you asking, may I ask?
But then, perhaps the app thought it impossible that a plant person (presumably the sort who would download such an app in the first place) wouldn’t instantly know a geranium on sight.
In this particular case, the app was right to be wrong. The geranium is fake, a lovely bit of Chinese polyester, or some such. Tucked amongst the ivy and other living greenery, the fakes give the upper boxes a constant hit of cheery color, no fuss, muss, water or death involved. Their fakeness is undetectable at 12 feet up, so why not?
In the interest of science—and at the insistence of Baby—I also photographed the leaves of an actual living geranium, not happening to have one in flower—which is my point, see “fake,” above. “Common geranium,” the app spat back, as if this answer were totally unworthy of its highfalutin time.
A helpful thing about PictureThis is that it stores the results of your inquiries so you needn’t take notes. This is handy when walking my 65-pound granddog and she suddenly sniffs a cat. One has to stay steady for only an instant and can refer to photos and notes at leisure.
So we snap a slightly blurry purple lily, still in tight bud, in a front yard. While I don’t know its name, I know it is not a red spider lily, or a striped Barbados lily, and it is certainly not an amaryllis.
It is a lycoris, I discover later. There was once a row of them in the front yard until I had the Prince muscle them out (they go very deep) and give them to a neighbor. Irritating they are in small spaces. Throwing up fronds and fronds of foliage during daffodil season and then withering and going belly-up in a slowly yellowing splat. Along about now a thick stalk will suddenly poke three feet up from the ground and quickly crest in a frizoom* of flowers. This is why it is also known as a surprise lily.
If you buy these—or come into a batch of bulbs—scatter them in the yard or plant them in a clump. This might eventually be attractive, if you can endure a month’s worth of dying leaves. Don’t do as I did, which was line them up along the walkway, where they’ll stand rigid as constipated soldiers with pots of lilies on their heads. This plant is entirely horrible from my point of view, flowering just in time for vacation—so we were enduring the wither and nothing of the flower.
Well. That was all neither here nor there.
Returning to the app. Shall we try a rose? Perhaps it was my choosing to photograph a bud that was confusing because the No. 1 choice was Turk’s Cap, more politically correctly known as malvaviscus arboreus. Quite a lovely lily by the way. Second choice, and equally wrong, the “common poppy,” it tells me. Third time lucky, as they say, finally the app posits a rose. Though they call it a China rose—perhaps being unable to bear identifying a $7.95 Knock Out Rose from Costco’s fine plant division.
Then came a string of hits: Lavender, sago palm, sunflower and sweet potato vine were all correctly named, though other possibilities were suggested for each. It’s in those possibilities that curiosity lies: I spent more time online with plant photos and names, trying to sort out the right and wrong, and discovering really pretty stuff like that malvaviscus arboreus that I must have.
Also right was the last try, which told me “Oops . . . I couldn’t find plants in the picture.” As it was a Washington Post newspaper delivery bag stuffed with dog droppings, the app was entirely correct.
*Frizoom is not a word, but should be.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” reports on her adventures in and around plants every Thursday.