The Plant Doctor App Puts A Human Touch On Identifying Plant Diseases

This Gardening App Has A Human Touch (And Just May Save Your Basil!)

Right about now, many of us have grand aspirations for our summer gardens. Fresh pestos, fragrant rosemary and those vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes we've longed for all winter long. Inevitably, however, as the season progresses, one or more of our precious plants will start to fade, sending us into a spiral of self-doubt and manic Internet searches -- all of which can result in vague diagnoses and dead-end solutions.

Enter The Plant Doctor. Developed by Scot Nelson, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Rescources (UH-CTAHR), The Plant Doctor is an interactive smartphone app that helps users accurately identify and manage plant pests and diseases.

It’s not the first app that can help pinpoint plant diseases, but it is unique in that you get the diagnosis from a living person, not to mention an expert on the subject. And it’s free.

“Other apps do not do that,” Nelson told The Huffington Post. “They simply deliver canned text diagnoses, and if more is offered, there is a cost.”

How it works: If you find something plaguing your plants, fill out a basic form within the app, upload a few photos and hit submit. An email will then be sent to Nelson.

Most of the time, Nelson answers within three hours of receiving a submission, depending on timezones.

We tried it out with a sick-looking potted dracaena; its leaves were turning brown at the edges. Within an hour, Nelson responded: “The plant needs potassium fertilizer.”

Use of the app, though, is not limited to backyard gardens and undernourished office plants. Nelson, who receives about 150 requests a month, has helped farmers, county agents, master gardeners, and even plant quarantine inspectors around the world.

If he doesn't know the answer right away, Nelson won't leave you hanging. In January, he received a request from a coffee farmer in Hawaii who saw some mysterious spots on a few of his plants. Stumped, Nelson obtained a sample from the plant and handed it over to a genetics specialist at UH-CTAHR. The specialist identified the disease about six weeks later as an emaravirus, which has never been seen before in coffee plants.

Nelson's doggedness may have helped avert a serious issue. Coffee farms on Hawaii’s Big Island are home to the country’s only commercially grown coffee. A few virus-infected plants could potentially threaten the island’s entire crop. Thanks to the keen eye of the farmer and Nelson's app, the infected plants have now been destroyed and Nelson says no other cases have been reported after alerting other coffee growers.

With such success, Nelson's been inspired to create two other smartphone apps: Pic-A-Papaya, which was developed with UH-CTAHR scientist Richard Manshardt, helps backyard gardeners in Hawaii find out if their papaya plants are infected with the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) -- which devastated Hawaii papayas from the 1960s through the early 2000s -- and The Leaf Doctor, which will be released soon and aims to help researchers around the world “measure the severity of plant disease on plant organs.”

Now, if you'll excuse us, we're going to grab some potash for our poor dracaena.

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