Few things intimidate me as much as botany, especially trees. The taxonomy is daunting, identifying species challenging, and discovering on foot with a bulky field guide in hand is no fun at all. But a brand new app makes the world of trees a lot easier and more accessible. By Arnold Ras

When I heard about TheTreeApp, available for Apple and Android devices, I immediately downloaded what sounded like the best thing since sliced bread. Would this help me to get over my fear of identifying trees, or those complex scientific names? It was time to face my tree demons head on. My weapon of choice: TheTreeApp.

Cellphone in hand, I was off to the Constantia side of Table Mountain National Park, where trees are in abundance. But first, a quick chat to tree guru Val Thomas, who co-created TheTreeApp. Val wrote the five books in the Sappi Tree Spotting series of guides with co-author Dr Rina Grant-Biggs.

“Look on the app’s home screen. Do you see the HELP button? Clicking on this, reading and learning what the app is exactly about is imperative before heading out into nature. Don’t expect the app to sing you a song when you stand in front of a tree. Before you start, make sure your device’s location setting is switched on, and take some time to fully understand the app’s search terms.”


Val Thomas. Pictures courtesy of TheTreeApp

Val was absolutely right. The better you know the app, the more successful you’ll be at searching for a tree’s correct ID. So, I sat down with a cup of coffee, read the app’s INSTANT TIPS, OVERVIEW, GETTING STARTED, and more. Then it was me versus the trees with an app that took a staggering six years to develop.

My modus operandi

  • First off, was my phone’s location setting activated? Yes
  • On the home screen, I selected LOCATION, and then CURRENT location. The app immediately scanned its database and showed me all the relevant species found in my area – within some 12,5km. Seeing that the app features more than 1,100 species (979 indigenous trees and 135 invasive species), I now had a slightly more condensed list. Beating heart, you may be still…
  • To make life somewhat easier, I walked to the biggest, boldest tree I could find. Baby steps, you see. I clicked on the search button with much anticipation.
  • A little tree graphic popped up. I had to choose from LEAVES, FLOWERS, FRUIT, STATUS, GROWTH FORM, WOODY FEATURES, THORNS, or LATEX. You’ll be happy to hear that the app makes use of Plain English Plant Speak, a new and much easier tree language for dummies like myself.
  • Leaves it was. Feeling completely out of my depth, I stared at the list of leaf options, then at the tree, trying to decide whether it had simple leaves, compound leaves, both, aloe-like leaves, or bamboo/reed leaves. I smiled. I had this.
  • As I made my selections, the number of tree choices decreased. All of a sudden, I was left with only five options. I decided not to search any further, but to rather look at the five narrowed-down species, comparing the app’s beautiful illustrations (of the tree, leaves and twigs) with what I saw before me.
  • Eureka! It was a Weeping Boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala). For the first time ever, I had identified a tree all by myself. Chuffed with my success, I set out to learn more. The app gave me the tree’s name in 11 official languages (where possible), the species’s key features, its distribution, habitats, growth form, conservation status and much more. I was in tree heaven…

Within an hour, I’d identified three more species – a Grand Umzimbeet, a Wild-almond and a Cape Chestnut – and added them to the app’s nifty MY TREES option where I could document and brag about all the species I’d encountered.

I arrived back home raving about my new favourite app and my partner sighed: “So, you are into trees now?” Exceptionally proud of my achievement and, more importantly, empowered by TheTreeApp, I eagerly responded: “Absolutely!”

A word from Val

“With so much in the app, it’s a good idea to play with it with any tree you can get hold of. This does help to build an understanding of what TheTreeApp is asking to be entered. If users feel they know what to expect, based on their previous experience with books, they will quickly see just how different TheTreeApp is from a book or e-book. This is a new way that simply did not exist before. Anyone who previously battled through lengthy botanical keys will find this a breath of fresh air and far simpler to use.”

Good to know

You need WiFi only to download the app, thereafter you do not need an internet connection to explore. TheTreeApp is available on Apple’s App Store or Google Play at R499.

Follow TheTreeApp on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Featured picture showing Thulani Vilikazi from Mpumalanga using TheTreeApp