Making Sense of Plant Labels – Part One
April 1, 2022

By Kate and Len Lucas

Many of the plants sold in pots today are produced by professional plant breeders and often grown in scientifically controlled environments. The red-leaved Poinsettia at Christmas is a good example.

However, whatever the scientific pedigree of a plant, we believe that gardening is not botany for beginners because at the point when you take that plant out of its pot, the creative flair of you, the gardener, takes over and the scientific world of production is left behind.

So is gardening a science or an art? We believe it is more of an art because the sciences conform to natural laws and art does not. Gardening is underpinned by a strong horticultural influence which makes its presence felt when you come face to face with a plant you want to buy in a garden centre.

The same plant can indeed turn up with different names, it is a feature of the gardening world that variations in the way a plant is named is a jumble of sound scientific necessity, and the inevitable evolution of language and faulty record-keeping that takes place slowly over a long period – it certainly isn’t because gardeners can’t read anything complicated. The best example of inaccurate naming is the red-flowered house plant called a Geranium, when in fact it’s a Pelargonium. It doesn’t really matter today, except if you tried to grow a Pelargonium outside all year round.

Here’s the thing, when botany does meet the gardening world, something happens and that something has a lot to do with a plant losing its identity. So what on earth is the amateur gardener supposed to do? All we can do in this article is draw attention to some of the variations that do occur with plant labels and hope it might help.

The difficulties start with what the label tells you as opposed to what it needs to tell you. We suggest the answers fall into two main categories: What is this plant’s name? and what does it need to survive in my garden?                  

The answer to the first one is the subject of this particular article. The answer to the second one will be dealt with in another.

 Does it really matter?

Right, you could have one of a plant in your garden and now want another and of course, the new purchase needs the same label or you have just read an article about a plant or seen it on the television and you now want to buy one. It’s likely, but not certain, that the label in the garden centre is the same as the plant that has just come to your attention. Many plants on sale have a label that has the Latin name, or at least part of it, and then something else has found its way onto the label because the plant breeders have been at it.

Here is an example of the very popular hardy garden Geranium “Rozanne” and the ways we have found it labelled.                                        

  1. “Rozanne”. G. x Rozanne. G.var. Rozanne. Geranium Rozanne.

Only the Geranium bit including the abbreviation to G. is Latin, the rest isn’t. This kind of thing is both charming and frustrating. 

Nobody is cheating here. They are all Rozanne and they are all the same plant. Sometimes the gardening industry needs to shorten the Latin name so it will fit the label and the G. is a good example. This is the correct way to shorten the word Geranium, it’s the correct way to shorten any biological genus. The third example, G.var Rozanne, is technically incorrect as Rozanne is a hybrid, not a variety so the correct label is the second one G. x Rozanne. Well if they are all Rozanne why does it matter?

Here’s why we suggest it might. That ”x” in the name is vital as it tells you this plant is a hybrid cross between two other Geraniums and if it is accompanied on the label by the RHS award of garden merit then you are holding a very fine plant indeed.

Plant hybrids and their significance to gardeners is a subject all of its own and we will deal with that in an article later in the year.

If you are unsure and feel that you need to be better informed, then most garden centre staff will find out what you want to know, even if they don’t know themselves.

We gardeners will always welcome something new and give it all the care we can even if we were not sure how it would get on in our garden and in any case, we think we would rather be called gardening artists than scientists.