The beauty of street botanists

Ever see a tree or even a weed and wonder what kind of plant it is? We’d love for you to stumble across the answer—right in front of you.

Inspired by a movement by French botanists, my 5-year-old daughter and I decided to become street botanists for the day. We would identify plants in the neighborhood and write their names in chalk on the sidewalk.

In the past year or so, botanists and other plant lovers began chalking plant names on streets and sidewalks as a way to get people to appreciate the natural world and biodiversity around them. Sometimes, the street botanists added a bit of trivia about the plant or posted pictures of their work, using #morethanweeds. The movement has picked up steam lately as people around the world have been taking more breaks outside and exploring their neighborhoods.

Our first identification: Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)

Caroline wanted to label one she knew, White Clover (Trifolium repens).

So Caroline, my wife Megan, and I started out by looking up common plants in our neighborhood. We looked online, flipped through field books, and downloaded a plant identification app. We didn’t want to identify the plants that people already know; we wanted to point out plants that people might not be able to identify and might intrigue them.

Our process was this: We would find a plant growing along the sidewalk that we were interested in learning more about. We used this neat app called LeafSnap that worked well. You take a photo of the plant in question and then upload it via the app. The app will ask you to categorize the photo as a leaf, flower, fruit, or bark. The list of results were quite comprehensive, and we loved learning about all of the variants of the plants. We also would find out more information on the plant via an old-fashioned Google search. The Garden's GardenGuide app is another good resource to use as well. 

We got a lot of interested looks from neighbors passing by. We explained our mission and encouraged them to learn more about the plants living right in their neighborhood.

Caroline admiring her new plant find: Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

Some Helpful Tips:

  • Professionals use what’s known as a dichotomous key to identify plants and other organisms. The key gives you a series of choices to help lead you to your choice. For kids who want to learn more, you can order a leaf identification kit. The kits help you identify leaves by shape, size, veins, etc. If you have problems identifying a plant, try a website that allows you to crowd source a photograph. 
  • Pick a day to go out when there was a stretch of no rain in the forecast—so your random acts of chalk will last as long as possible.
  • And, of course, please keep in mind that some private property owners might not like their sidewalks chalked up. It never hurts to ask first. The property owners might even want to get in on the fun.