One of the most confusing things to ordinary gardeners is the names of plants. It can be difficult to choose a plant when you find it listed with different names, making you think there are several plants, where there is just one. There are good reasons, and clear explanations, for why this happens, and understanding these things will make life much easier for you when reading about plants, and choosing them. Let’s go through the main origins of plant names, and why they can get confusing.
The most obvious reason for different names is mistakes. Names can be confusing for gardeners, and they can be confusing too for people who sell plants, or write about them. As an example, let’s take a look indoors, at houseplants, where errors in naming are especially common. Snake Plants are popular and easy to grow, and there are a lot of different varieties. One popular one is a plant with round, narrow leaves, which often grow up and then arch outwards. There is a wild plant growing in cliffs in the Congo, called by botanists Sansevieria bacularis. For some unknown reason, it is often called the Mikado Snake Plant. There is a similar plant that was created at Fernwood Nursery in California, by Rogers Weld. It’s a hybrid, and named after the nursery, so it is Sansevieria parva x suffruticosa ‘Fernwood’, or the Fernwood Snake Plant.
Unfortunately, they do look similar – see this picture showing them side by side – but worst of all, we find all over the web the name ‘Fernwood Mikado’ given to it. Of course, if you buy one with that name, who knows which one you will actually get? It pays to check names carefully if you want a particular plant.
Botanists go to a lot of effort to identify plants correctly. Each plant has a unique name, in Latin, and these are the best and most reliable way to name a plant. Notice that each name has two parts, and both are important. The first name, always starting with a capital letter, is the genus. That’s a collective group of similar plants, and can have just one plant in it, or several hundred. So if we use Acer, the name for maple trees, we aren’t really being very precise, because there are about 130 different species in that genus. We need to say Acer palmatum – Japanese maple, or Acer rubrum, our American red maple, before we can say we really have the right tree. Then of course we often need to add another name, the cultivar name, if we are talking about a garden plant.
One way to be sure you are getting the plant you want, is to use cultivar names. What is a ‘cultivar’ you say? It is the official name given to a garden form of a particular plant. That is, you normally wouldn’t find this plant in the wild, and it is usually the result of selection in a nursery or garden somewhere in the world. It could be chance, or it could be the result of a long breeding program by a specialist. These are the names that, if used correctly, are in single quotes – Astilbe ‘Rheinland’, for example. These names have normally been registered with an independent organization, or given to the plant by the breeder/collector. Most nurseries are careful to reproduce these plants carefully, and if you use the cultivar name, you should get exactly what you are expecting.
A Note on Grammar and Typography
Those of us who work with plants like to do things right, so there are a few rules for using these botanical and cultivar names.
- Firstly, botanical plant names are names like Mary Smith, or Tom Brown. You don’t say, “the Tom Brown has red hair”, and you don’t say, “The Acer palmatum has divided leaves”. Drop that ‘the’.
- Second, these names are always distinguished by being written in italics. The genus name starts with a capital letter, but the species name doesn’t.
- The names of cultivars are written in regular type, not italics, and they always start with a capital letter, and are surrounded by single quotes.
These are easy rules, and they really make a difference, so I hope any writers reading this will follow them.
In recent years there has been an explosion in the patenting of plants. The system has been around since 1931, but was little used for decades. The USA is the only country that allows a plant to be patented, but Canada and Europe have a similar scheme, called ‘Plant Breeder Rights’. These legal devices protect the breeder or patent holder from someone simply reproducing their plant without paying them a fee. Patents are granted to a plant under its cultivar name, a name that cannot be ‘owned’, so once the patent protection on reproduction has expired, that name is available to anyone to use.
Patents only last 20 years, and breeders might want to extend their rights for longer than that – it can, after all, take 10 years for a plant to become popular and have a big market. So breeders and nurseries have turned to using trademarks for plants. These are shown by either the ™ symbol, which gives limited rights, or by the ® symbol, which has stronger protections. Although a single registration only lasts 10 years, it can be renewed indefinitely.
To help strengthen the trademark name – good for ever – over the patent name – only good for 20 years, breeders ‘downplay’ the patent name by making it difficult to use, and obscure. So you see cultivar names (used for patents remember) that are nothing but letters or numbers – such as these real examples: ‘Pas702917’; ‘RLH-GA1’; ‘ILVO347’; ‘Novanepjun’; ‘SMNPOTW’. This means that when the patent expires, although anyone can then use these names to sell the plant, they have such limited recognition, no one is going to buy a plant based on that name.
Instead, the trademark name becomes the name nurseries and gardens use, and that way the original breeder/owner continues to reap the benefits of their work forever.
Another Cause of Confusion
Here is a last example of how confusing all these names can become. Crapemyrtles, or Lagerstroemia, are popular and vibrant flowering trees and shrubs that thrive in hot areas. There are many different ones. Dr. Cecil Pounder is a Research Geneticist at the Thad Cochran Southern Horticulture Laboratory, in Poplarville, Mississippi. There he bred a series of plants with ordinary cultivar names, and didn’t patent them, since they were bred using tax-payer funds – they should belong to every American. He gave them all names that started with ‘Ebony’, so ‘Ebony Embers’, ‘Ebony Glow’, etc. These were sold under those names for years. Then a nursery decided to re-label them, and gave them new, trademark names, using the name Black Diamond, because they all have dark-red leaves. They followed that with a color. So ‘Ebony Flame’ became Best Red™ Black Diamond®, and so on. If that Black Diamond® name becomes widely used, then the nursery makes a profit from plants that they had no part in creating. To help you sort this out, here are the equivalents. You can make your own decision on what you think of practices like this.
- ‘Ebony & Ivory’ = Pure White™ Black Diamond®
- ‘Ebony Embers’ = Red Hot™ Black Diamond®
- ‘Ebony Fire’ = Crimson Red™ Black Diamond®
- ‘Ebony Flame’ = Best Red™ Black Diamond®
- ‘Ebony Glow’ = Blush™ Black Diamond®