Free Mobile App Puts NZ Trees on the Map

Thanks to a new app, anyone with a smartphone can now identify over a hundred native trees, shrubs and ferns – with confidence and without spending a cent.

Released by AUT’s Institute for Applied Ecology New Zealand, the free nztrees app makes it easy for people to educate themselves, friends and family about the country’s huge variety of native trees.

A cleverly designed ‘visual-ID wizard’ avoids the need for technical terms. Instead, users simply select the icons that match the characteristics of the tree they’re trying to identify, including the leaf shape, fruit or flower colour and stem arrangement.

For those who like to delve a little deeper, the nztrees app also provides Māori, Latin and common names, as well as the traditional medicinal use or potentially poisonous properties of each tree.

“What’s special about New Zealand is that we have such unique plants – most found nowhere else in the world,” explains Professor Len Gillman, head of AUT’s School of Science.

“Getting to know them is really important for our sense of place, for understanding our natural environment and raising awareness of the need to protect it. The ability to identify native trees makes you more aware of the vulnerability of our ecosystems, like the recent outbreak of Kauri dieback.”

After identifying a tree, users can record and share their discovery – adding photographs and notes to their own gallery of sightings, using smartphone GPS to pinpoint locations and raising awareness by sharing those sightings by email or social media.

Professor Gillman hopes nztrees will be the first in a series of free nature identification apps that help people identify aspects of New Zealand nature. He’s already working on an environmental weed identification app.

“By helping people learn the difference between an environmental weed and a native plant, we can help them recognise the extent of the problem we have with environmental weeds,” he says.

“Going forward we want all our apps to be free. We’re hoping to gain sponsorship, so we can keep delivering apps that are accurate, easy to use and that help spread knowledge and awareness.”

nztrees is available on Apple and Android platforms.

Pro Vice-Chancellor’s Perspective

Prof. Max Abbott, CNZM
Pro Vice-Chancellor,  AUT North Campus

When I was young, I loved spending time with my dad – walking in the bush, by the sea or along the river banks. During the Great Depression, he survived by finding work felling trees and carving out tracks through the bush. Back then it was selective rather than mass logging. He learned about native plants, including their Māori names and traditional uses.

I would have liked to learn more of these things from my father, but sadly he’s gone and there aren’t so many people nowadays who know what he did.

So, it’s fortunate that AUT has developed a mobile app that allows anyone to enhance their understanding of our amazing indigenous flora. Due to long separation from other land masses, it is unique and special in many ways.

My mother was a keen gardener and I am too. Half of my gardens have only native plants.

I now understand that these things are an important part of me – a part that helps keep me calm and centred. There are many reasons for preserving and restoring natural environments – among them are benefits to health.

In recent years, a growing body of research has identified connections between exposure to natural environments and health, particularly mental health. The benefits include lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as improved cognition in children with attention deficits. Both immediate and long-term benefits have been found.

This is the reason why the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week was ‘let nature in, strengthen your wellbeing’.

Urbanisation continues at a rapid pace and the majority of New Zealanders now live in cities. There are massive reductions in the time people spend in natural environments worldwide.

At AUT North Campus, we recently created a sensory garden – an environment designed to stimulate the senses and promote wellness. I’m pleased to say it has just received top-three placing at the International Sport and Culture Association green spaces awards.

There are still aspects of nature to be enjoyed in urban environments and we should establish more green spaces in our homes and cities. To benefit, however, we need to spend more time in them.