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New smartphone app to track problem plants

A flower on a Himalayan Balsam plant

A flower on a Himalayan Balsam plant Dave Kilbey

Press release issued: 13 June 2012

The University of Bristol is using technology to help protect the UK’s wildlife thanks to the launch of a new mobile phone app which enables the public to track the spread of invasive plants.

The PlantTracker app helps people to record where they have spotted Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Floating Pennywort - three particularly problematic Invasive, Non-Native Species (INNS) that are causing untold problems in the UK.

They pose a threat to biodiversity, increase flood risk and affect the state of our water environment, costing the British economy a minimum of £1.7 billion per annum.

Tackling the problem in such a high-tech fashion is The Environment Agency who has teamed up with the Nature Locator project at Bristol University and the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH).

The project is being piloted in the Midlands initially, where residents are being urged to download the PlantTracker app which shows them how to identify each species and enables users to easily submit geo-located photos whenever they find one.

Dave Kilbey, Nature Locator Project Manager, said: “Engaging members of the public with scientific research is an exciting and expanding area with benefits both to science and the individuals involved. Smartphone apps are ideally suited to projects of this kind and the Nature Locator team aims to build a portfolio of apps to tackle some of our many environmental problems.”

The project team work in the research and development division of IT Services, which explores how the internet and other technologies can aid research, future learning and management processes.

Nature Locator’s award-winning inaugural project ‘Leaf Watch’ was an app designed to collect information on an invasive moth which is threatening horse chestnut trees in the UK. A total of 5,500 records were collected from across the country in a four month recording period.

The PlantTracker app is available free from the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store by searching for planttracker (one word), or from the website

It is hoped that in subsequent years the project will be expanded to cover the whole of the UK.  Records can be submitted from outside the Midlands but they may not be analysed straight away.

You download the app and then follow the progress of the project and the reports that are coming in via a blog on the project website, on twitter using #planttracker and @envagencymids, or at 

Further information is available from the Environment Agency’s website.

Further information

What are Invasive Non Native Species (INNS) and why are they a problem?

An INNS is any non-native animal or plant that has the ability to spread causing damage to the environment, the economy, our health and the way we live. INNS pose threats to biodiversity, increase flood risk, and affect the state of our water environment. INNS cost the British economy a minimum of £1.7 billion per annum.

Which INNS is PlantTracker tackling?

Japanese Knotweed - Common in urban areas, particularly on waste land, railways, road sides and river banks. Tall herbaceous perennial with bamboo-like stems. It contributes to river bank erosion and so increases the likelihood of flooding. It can cause structural damage (eg it can grow through asphalt). Spreads rapidly in the wild.

Himalayan Balsam - Found mostly on river banks and in damp woodland. Easy to identify when in flower with showy pink flowers. Can exceed 2m (6ft) in height and often grows in dense stands. It out competes our native plants, especially on river banks.

Floating Pennywort - Found in still or slowly moving freshwater. Kidney-shaped leaves often appear round and are up to 7cm (3 inches) across. Leaves either float on the water or are held slightly above it. Plant grows in mats that spread across the water surface. It can grow up to 20cm per day and smother waterbodies. Can out-compete native waterplants.

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