Garden Clippings: Plant Names

Understanding plant names.

| July 2005

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    LABELS: Plant labels at botanical gardens and arboretums give visitors a lot of information about the plant, including the genus, species, and the variety or cultivar.
    Mike Lang

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Patient Lucy, Busy Lizzie and Sultana are the names for a very common garden plant. Some gardeners will recognize one or more of these names and the plant that they refer to, while others may not recognize the names at all and refer to this plant as impatiens.

Names that we commonly call plants can vary according to geographical location or by what age generation a person is a part of. I have rarely heard of impatiens referred to as anything but impatiens, but more seasoned gardeners may still use one of the other monikers that describe the plant.

Because there are numerous common names for many of our garden plants, it is important for a gardener to understand how the Latin, or botanical, naming system works. This is especially important if you buy mail-order plants and seeds, in order to ensure that you receive the plant you wanted.

Other than the Latin words, plant nomenclature is really quite easy to use and understand, and it can give you insight about the properties of a plant that you may not be familiar with, by the group of plants it belongs to. Although botanical naming can be an in-depth process, for the average gardener, all the naming we need to use is the genus, the species, and the variety or cultivar of the plant.

The plant genus refers to a group of plants that all have similar properties, much like a family's last name. In the case of the impatiens, the genus name is impatiens.

Plant species, or specific epithet, is the name for plants in a family that have distinct characteristics from others within the same family or genus. For the impatiens, the species name is wallerana. So the name is written as impatiens wallerana. This name will tell you that it is the bedding plant that is so common and not impatiens x hybrida, which is the New Guinea impatiens.

Cultivars are a group of plants within a genus and species that have been developed by horticulturists. These plants have been propagated in some way that makes them unique from the plants in the rest of the species. 'Super Elfin' is a cultivar of impatiens that most are familiar with. This cultivar is different from the species because it's a shorter plant that is fuller and is free-flowering all season long. The full name for this cultivar is impatiens wallerana 'Super Elfin.' Cultivar names are always enclosed by single quotation marks.

A variety of a species is similar to that of a cultivar. It has unique qualities that differ from the species. The difference in the two is that a variety of a species happens from natural crosses of plants. Pink-flowering dogwood is a variety of flowering dogwood that ended up with pink blooms. The botanical name would be written Cornus florida var. rubra. The abbreviation for variety is included to tell you it is a variety and not a cultivar.

Hybrids are one thing that throws a wrench in the naming. Because there may be numerous crossings of parent plants of different species, the names are not included. For instance, the New Guinea impatiens botanical name is written as impatiens x hybrida. The x is inserted to show that the plant is a result of a cross of different species.

There are other items that may be added to plant labels at botanical gardens and arboretums that give additional information, but the average gardener, who just wants to know what the plant is, does not need these items.

Take some time to look at the botanical names on your next garden tour. After a little time, most of the names will begin to make some sense, even if you don't know Latin. And after all, sometimes it's fun to learn a plant name that's unique, so you can impress your friends. My all-time favorite is Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood tree). It just sounds cool.



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