If you are having trouble knowing what to call that latest plant you just put in your garden, you are not alone. Many gardeners love their plants, and might even see them as their ‘children’. But while we might have several names for our kids (not all of them printable!) we have no trouble knowing what they are really called. That isn’t always true with our plants. Labels can come with a bewildering number of names on them, and if I love it a lot, how do I go about finding another one exactly the same? So let’s explore the increasingly complex world of plant names, so we can all be reading from the same label.
These names – words like ‘pine’, ‘oak’, or ‘daisy’ – are at the same time the simplest, and the least useful. If you wanted some furniture and went out to buy a ‘table’, you could come home with anything from a giant slab of wood 30 feet long for a banquet, to a tiny piece of glass on a steel rod to put your coffee on beside your favorite easy chair. It’s the same with plants. That innocent sounding ‘pine’ tree could be any one of around 150 different trees with that name that botanists might recognize, and in the garden it could be anything from a rounded bush a foot across to a towering tree with the potential to be 200 feet tall. Once we get started with the many different forms of plants created or found by plant breeders, devising a system using just the accepted common names simply isn’t going to get us very far. If we throw in issues like the fact that a simple name like ‘cypress’ can refer to hundreds of different plants in about 20 different groupings, and you can see the problem. . .
That’s why, at the Tree Center, we always show you the current name in Latin, as accurately as we can research it. Since these names can change, and be the subject of serious disputes, this is not a perfect system, but it’s the best we have. As increasing numbers of gardeners know already, these Latin names, or botanical names, have two parts. Think of the first part, starting with a capital letter, as equivalent to your family name. There are lots of people with the name ‘Smith’, just like there are lots of plants with the name ‘Pinus’. This is called the genus. [There is also a thing called ‘Family’ in the botanical system. This is a collection of genera (plural of genus) with similar features, and it’s a category not used much by home gardeners.]
The second word in the botanical name is the species. These are all the plants that are basically the same, just like all humans are basically the same, while at the same time having relatively minor differences. So Pinus strobus is the well-known white pine of the northeast, while Pinus nigra is the equally well-known Austrian Pine used extensively in landscaping. While some botanical names have clear common-name equivalents, like these two, that is pretty rare. [If you want to do things right, you see here that botanical names should be always written in italics, to distinguish them.]
This word gets a bit confusing, because it can have two distinct meanings. The botanical variety is a group of plants of a species with some stable, distinct feature. We add the abbreviation ‘var.’ into a name to show this. Sticking to pine trees, there is Pinus mugo var. pumilo, which are a group of very low-growing forms of this small pine tree. Unfortunately, this name is also given to different forms of a plant created in the garden, like ‘varieties’ of roses. There is a better name for these – cultivar. This means a variety that is the result of garden cultivation, not differences found out in nature, but unfortunately gardeners seem reluctant to use this word. The cultivar name is the one in single-quotes (an not in italics) at the end, Pinus nigra ‘Green Tower’, for example.
The fist plant patent was issued in 1931, and like all patents one for a plant gives ownership to a cultivated plant that is distinctly different from all others. This means that the owner gets paid a small amount of money every time a new plant is made at a nursery. The goal of allowing plant patents was to encourage the creation of new, useful plants for food, for example. It didn’t work that way, and most plant patents are for ornamental plants. In Europe a similar system is called ‘Plant Breeder Rights’.
This all sounds fine, but a plant patent is only good for 20 years, so after that anyone can copy the plant for free. The Tree Center names always show you if there is an active patent on a plant. That does mean that you would be technically breaking the law if you too some cuttings, for example (but not if you collected seeds).
Cultivar names like ‘Green Tower’ make perfect sense, but what about a plant called ‘RLH1-12P0’? Under what name do I buy that, and why are these strange strings of letters and numbers, or odd words like ‘Robleja’ turning up where the cultivar name belongs? These cause lots of confusion and avoidance, but there is a simple answer – good ol’ capitalism.
While plant patents only protect your invention for 20 years, trademark names are good forever. At least, they are if you renew them every ten years. Now there is a rule that you can’t trademark a cultivar name. So if I patent my plant with a ‘sensible’ name, like ‘Green Tower’, once that patents expires, anyone can sell a Green Tower Pine Tree. So a clever patent lawyer figured out one day that if an inventor gave his or her plant a strange cultivar name, and a nice trademark name as well, no-one would use the cultivar name once the patent expired, and the plant would be only be known by its protected trademark name, and more money could be made. Take that ‘RLH1-12P0’. That is the cultivar name of the Blush Elegance™ azalea. See what was done there? When the patent expires on this plant in 2034, nobody is going to buy Rhododendron ‘RLH1-12PO’ from a nursery that after that year can freely grow this plant from cuttings – buyers will still be looking for Blush Elegance azaleas. Notice that it is only the name that is trademarked, not the plant itself, which can still be freely grown and sold by anyone, using its cultivar name.
Some inventors are still patenting plants with useful cultivar names, but increasingly larger corporate nurseries have shifted to using trademarks combined with ‘nonsense’ cultivar names for the patent.
Take that Blush Elegance™ azalea again. It is a particular color, but the breeder has created lots of different colors on very similar bushes, and these are often brought together with a Brand Name. This is also going to be a trademark name, indicated by ‘TM’ or ®. This particular azalea is part of the ReBLOOM™ range. That earlier name we mentioned, ‘Robleja’, is also an azalea. It is the Autumn Sweetheart™ azalea, sold under the Encore® Azalea brand.
There is also a different kind of brand name in use by nurseries. For example, there is a new, patented, dwarf fig tree available, called ‘Little Miss Figgy’. It is sold as part of the Southern Living® Collection, a brand of plants connected to Southern Living Magazine, suitable for growing in the South. In turn, Southern Living have created a range of edible plants, called DownHome Harvest®. Since these names contain several plants, they are entirely distinct from the plant name.
What Do You Think?
We’ll leave you to decide how useful – or not – you think all these names are. We just sell the plants. . . Hopefully this explanation will make it easier for you to read the labels, and find the actual name of your plant. (Hint: look for the smallest printing).