It all started with this stunning purple climber that you see all over New Delhi this time of the year. We have a little patch of green in our backyard where I’ve grown a few lime trees, a lychee tree and some flowering plants. I’ve also built a water fountain bird bath—a DIY project—and I see bulbuls and black and white Magpie-robins, Purple Sunbirds, the evil-looking Babblers, and a tiny grey bird with wide round eyes whose name I do not know, all having a good time.

Beyond these few species, I don’t know the names of any other birds. I also don’t know the names of several flowering and fragrant plants that I have in our backyard.

I always wonder how people can remember the Latin names of plants, birds and butterflies. One day a friend walked into our house and said, “Your Spathiphyllums are doing quite well," and I looked at him and asked, “spathi-what?" He was talking about the green shrub I had planted along a wall. I’m not a serious gardener; I just enjoy pottering around.

That friend, who is very knowledgeable about plants, recently posted a photo of a deep purple flower on Instagram, and said it was a Petrea climber. Purely by coincidence, another friend who is also into nature, invited me over to see “the Wisteria in full bloom" in her neighbourhood park. It seems that what was Wisteria for her was Petrea for my Instagram friend, and I was confused. I wanted to buy the beautiful climber from a nursery but I didn’t know the name.

It suddenly struck me that I should perhaps try out the iNaturalist app that can identify any plant, bird or wild animal. I had downloaded it last year, but never tested it.

Soon after I posted a photo of the blue creeper on the app, there was an observation: “Genus Petrea," and a Wikipedia entry—“It looks somewhat similar to a tropical Wisteria." So they are not the same, and what I should buy is Petrea, not Wisteria.

The iNaturalist app is simple to use: You take a picture, upload, and soon you get a list of possible species. If they are not sure, they will say, “We’re not confident enough to make a recommendation," and give you a few suggestions.

A couple of months ago, I had tossed some seeds into a pot, and now there are these beautiful white flowers in the shape of clovers. A search on iNaturalist revealed it’s a type of daisy. iNaturalist was founded by a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008, and later acquired by the California Academy of Sciences. They call it “a crowdsourced species identification system" and their aim is to “connect people to nature".

If you have a question, you upload a photograph and someone will identify the species. Now, in addition to nature enthusiasts, they also use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to answer your query. And if you want to contribute, you can upload a photograph, identify the species if you are sure, and add to their database of millions of images.

In The Atlantic last year, science writer Ed Yong called it “a cross between Shazam (the popular app that can recognize any music) and an old-fashioned field guide".

Some months ago, a seriously green-fingered friend was relocating from India to the US, and gave me many of her plants. Among them was a large shrub that had fragrant pink flowers. I’ve been trying to figure out its name to check how much sun it needs and how often it should be watered, etc. I took a photograph (it’s not in bloom) and posted it on the app, but there’s no clear response. I had a photograph of it from last year when it was in bloom, and when I posted that on the app, I got a reply: “We’re pretty sure this is the genus Leucophyllum." Doesn’t need to be watered frequently.

In the pre-Google days, if I wanted to find out about a plant, I would look up my A To Z Encyclopaedia Of Garden Plants. It would have taken me a long time to find out the name of this plant. Technology has made it not just easier but also more interesting

Now I’m searching for the name of this fidgety little grey bird with wide eyes that I often see in the bird bath.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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