10

The tag is the most widely used one on the site (as I write, there are 294 questions using it, and 200 for the next most popular, ). However, many of them are little more than the question title and a sometimes blurry photograph of the plant (or even just of a small part of the plant).

I know that it can be difficult to describe a plant, especially if you don't know the botanical terms for things, but if you're curious enough about a plant to want us to identify it, there must have been something that piqued that curiosity; why not share that with us? There's a world of difference between "What is this plant?" and "What is this 2m tall shrub with spiky orange leaves?"

There are at least a few problems here:

  • for people answering, additional information is often needed to aid in identification: where the plant was found, size, shape, what the leaves/flowers/stems, etc. look like and so on.

  • answers often simply state the name of the plant; while technically correct, they are of little use without calling out the plant's unique characteristics so that people can learn. Care tips for the plant are often another useful addition.

  • for future people trying to identify plant X, there is no textual description of the plant, and photographs aren't searchable, so someone trying won't easily be able to find our Q&A about it.

I have some suggestions for how to improve this situation for our — and the site's — benefit, in no particular order (and indeed some of them not totally serious):

  • Write a FAQ (here on meta) for how to ask a good identification question, refer people to it and enforce the guidelines it contains.

    The existing post here on meta doesn't provide that in a concise FAQ format, and while the  wiki has some useful tips, it's not presented to someone asking a question: instead they have to go looking for it, assuming they even know it exists.

  • Write a FAQ for how to answer an identification question. Many answers simply state the name of the plant, where ideally the plant's identifying characteristics should be called out.

  • Ban identification questions outright; other Stack Exchange sites don't allow this type of question at all..

  • Quickly put any incoming questions on hold that lack enough textual information to provide an answer. My criterion here would be to imagine the question without the photograph; if you couldn't even begin to answer, then click “close” instead.

  • “What are you talking about? The questions are fine just the way they are.”

I'd like to hear what people think; either here or in the main site chatroom.

5

I think it is reasonable to have these minimum standards:

  • a picture
  • a location

Even indoor plants can be more easily identified if you know what part of the world the plant is located in.

4

This seems like a good and difficult question. I would be disappointed if identification questions were banned, but I do see that that is the easiest and possibly best way forward.

The hardest part about trying to add a textual description to make the identification questions searchable is that visual descriptions can vary quite a bit for the same plant and if you don't hit the right key words then you won't find it. I don't know about you, but I'm not a complete idiot when it comes to searching for information online and there is probably once a month or so that until I ask a friend to help me search with a different wording I just can't find what I'm looking for.

  • 1
    I'm not really serious about banning them (but shh, don't tell anyone). Agreed, it can be difficult to describe a plant, especially if you don't know the terminology. But if you're curious enough about a plant to want us to identify it, there must have been something that piqued that curiosity; why not share that with us? – Niall C. Apr 22 '14 at 14:53
4

I always edit these questions when I see them. I just did two today, changing "what is this plant?" to something that includes descriptive adjectives based on what I saw in the pictures. I do this for three reasons:

  • to encourage possible answerers to click the link
  • to leave a more searchable QA pair for future Googlers (and thus increase site traffic among other things)
  • to have a good example for the next "identify this plant please" person

Voting to close a question because it doesn't have textual information, when you could just edit in that same information, doesn't seem like a good plan for a site that's trying to grow. Accept the half-baked question as a gift, edit into something more searchable, and see what happens. (Closing because the question isn't answerable due to information that's needed and not present in any form is a different story of course, and I wholly support that.)

I think it would help if the How To Ask included (for all questions, not just ones) a suggestion to include your location. There are hardly any questions where your location is irrelevant, even when discussing houseplants.

If you feel that an answer that only names the plant is a bad answer, why not just comment on it asking for it to be improved? A great answer would probably include the scientific and common names, some interesting tidbit about it (how to make it bloom, how to know the fruit is ripe), and how the answerer can be sure that this is the right plant. This is no different from a "good answer" on SO or the like. Commenting and voting are the universal tools for making answers better, not wiki entries that describe in advance what to put in a good answer.

1

In my professional experience, people ask the name of a plant (or ID) because they just want to know what the hell is growing in that corner, or what the plant they've just been given is, or whether that thing that's just popped up is a pernicious weed or a plant they might want. There doesn't have to be anything particularly startling about its growth habit or a particular thing that's piqued their curiousity - they just want to know because they don't know already. Now that might also be because they want to know how big its going to get and whether its hardy or not, how much water it needs, what conditions it likes, but it's hard to guess at what reasons they might have for asking if they don't put it in the question. Quite often, they just like the look of something they've seen and want to know what it is in case it's suitable for them to grow themselves, or are simply curious.

I also can't really see the point of listing various descriptive features of a plant that someone's identified, unless it's something serious like it's poisonous, or is one that should be supplied with a machete because it takes over. I mean saying things like, 'the leaves are paired and opposite' or 'lanceolate', these things are obvious from the picture usually. Once you have the full horticultural name of a plant, its a simple matter to google it for as much information as you'd like - there's a fine line between useful information and extraneous, tedious detail, which can smack of someone simply trying to display their knowledge. I'm not sure there is a way to make ID questions searchable - presumably the person asking doesn't have enough knowledge to give a technical description, and the person answering (like me) won't bother with a full fledged botanical description either.

I can't see an easy answer to this one, but I'm very glad to hear you're not serious about banning ID questions... knowing the proper name of what's growing is the most critical thing to know.

One other point - what would be very helpful is if questioners were made to state what part of the world they're in, and that applies to pest/infection questions as well...

  • For now, technology isn't quite advanced enough to accurately search pictures from a text query. There are huge advantages for this site to include textual descriptions in both the Q & A. Being easy to search should be a priority for a beta site who is trying to gather traffic. – RubberDuck Aug 26 '14 at 11:36

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