Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Name Game

“The Name Game”

By Becke Davis

Walter Jablonski of Merrillville, IN, a retired turkey farmer, needed a name for a daylily he was ready to introduce. Roy Klehm relates the story: “Walter had been working in his garden, which was about 50 yards below his house. He was hot and went to the house to get a drink. He was sitting at the table, looking out the window at his new daylilies, when he absent-mindedly picked up a cookie from a box that was on the table. The name of the cookies suddenly caught his eye – Stella D’Oro. Walter quickly verified that the name had not been previously registered.” Hemerocallis ‘Stella de Oro’, which translates to “Star of Gold,” won the Stout award in 1975 -- the rest is history.
Naming a plant is not always a simple proposition, however. People who are new to the world of plants often find plant nomenclature a confusing and complex subject, requiring knowledge of botanical latin and other mysterious terms. The term “botanical latin” is not capitalized because it does not refer to classical Latin but to botanical terms that have been given a latin treatment.
The system is fairly straightforward -- in theory, at least. Take, for instance, an old favorite shrub -- Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, also known as the Annabelle smooth hydrangea. This plant is distinguished by huge creamy white blossoms up to a foot across, blossoms which can literally cover the shrub. Because of the distinctive blossoms, this shrub is sometimes called “snowball bush”. Request a “snowball bush” from a nursery, or try to order one online, and confusion will probably be result.
Search the internet for “snowball bush” and ‘Annabelle’ will turn up -- so will Viburnum opulus cultivars ‘Roseum’ (also known by the common name guelder rose) and ‘Sterile’, as well as V. plicatum and others. An online garden forum attempting to identify a snowball bush in someone’s garden ran into heated discussion as participants argued between Hydrangea and Viburnum possibilities. There is also a snowball tree (Viburnum macrocephalum) and a snowbell tree (Styrax japonica). Confusion over common names is one reason the latin binomial system comes in handy. It is also useful when people from different countries, speaking in different languages, are trying to discuss the same plant.
Hydrangea and Viburnum identify the genus of a plant, the first part of a plant’s botanical name. The second part of a plant’s botanical name is the specific epithet, which often describes certain features of the plant. Hydrangea arborescens means a “tree-like” hydrangea, and the combination of the two words forms the complete binomial species name of the plant. ‘Annabelle’(see photo above) is the cultivar name -- a cultivar is defined as “a taxon that has been selected for a particular attribute or combination of attributes, and that is clearly distinct uniform and stable in its characteristics and that, when propagated by appropriate means, retains those characteristics.” Genus and species are italicized, while cultivar names are placed in single quotations and not italicized.
Sometimes a single letter initial will follow a botanical name, which indicates the person who first named the plant, as R. for Alfred Rehder, B. for W.J. Bean, or L. for Carolus Linnaeus. While this designation is common in scientific works and reference materials, it is not commonly used, for example, in plant catalogues or in the media.
Hybrid plants, crosses of different species within the same genus, occur in nature and by the hand of man. These crosses are called interspecific hybrids (sometimes called intrageneric) and are indicated by a cross sign or X between the genus and the species epithet. When the X symbol appears before the genus name, it indicates a cross between plants of two different genera, known as an intergeneric cross. While intergeneric crosses are not common among landscape plants, they are frequently found among specialty plants such as orchids.
In addition to the latin binomial, plant names may include a variety (plants of the same species that display clear differences) or forma (plants of the same species that display occasional differences). An example of this is the thornless honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos var. (for variety) inermis (meaning literally “unarmed”, i.e. thornless). If a plant has been patented, it will usually end with a “PP#” indicating the patent number, while trademark names are followed by the symbol TM and registered trademark names are followed by the ® symbol.
Even as system as complex as the current method of naming plants is not foolproof. A professional gardener describes a simple mistake she made: “When I first came across the name for a particular sunflower -- Helianthus grossesserratus -- I read that as ‘Big Mistake Sunflower’, H. grosses-erratus. In the botanical world this is not so silly as it might sound. There are numerous plants whose common names are ‘false’ this or that -- false spirea, false astilbe, false aralia. . .I was sure there was some dramatic plant story behind that name -- perhaps a plant explorer mistaking it for some other plant and dying an agonizing death as a result. But sunflowers are not poisonous and in fact, the correct reading of that sunflower’s name is H. grosses-serratus, the Big Tooth Sunflower (syn. Sawtooth Sunflower). In my mind now, the Big Tooth has become my big mistake.” 1
The nomenclature of plants has been argued for centuries. The basis for today’s rules of nomenclature are published in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, last revised in 2004. This is not a secret book, like The DaVinci Code, but a variation on a Code of Conduct, in relation to plant nomenclature. The present code was based on the Lois de la Nomenclature botanique devised by Swiss botanist Alphonse de la Candolle and accepted by the International Botanical Congress of Paris in 1867. 2 This became known as the “Paris code”.
In the United States, the push for a uniform system of botanical nomenclature was led by the American Pomological Society, who published a code as early as 1847. Although subsequent codes developed in France, Belgium, England, Germany and other countries in the twentieth century superceded these early nomenclature codes, the early codes were the starting point for later works.
The International Code of Nomenclature for Botanical Plants was developed by groups of horticulturists from around the world, and was presented at the 13th International Horticultural Congress of London in September 1952. One of the authors of the code noted that it represented “the collective wisdom of persons having a first-hand practical acquaintance with the nomenclatural needs of amateur gardeners, plant breeders, nurserymen dealing in alpines, bulbous plants, herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs, seedsmen dealing in vegetables and ornamental annuals, agriculturists, foresters, systematic botanists and award-giving and name-registering societies.” 3
The international code is not law, but the rules presented in the code are often used when plant nomenclature and registration issues are taken to court.
Working within the limitations of the code, where do the actual plant names come from? A genus name can be based on an ancient name that has survived over the centuries, it may be a descriptive name, or it might commemorate a particular botanist, a plant explorer, or even a member of the family. Specific epithets tend to describe the habit or distinctive features of the plant, but they can also refer to a person the plant introducer wants to recognize or to the place the plant was discovered.
For instance, the species name wilsonii refers to plant explorer Ernest Wilson, sargentii to Charles S. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum, while the genus Dahlia is named after botanist Andreas Dahl and Fuchsia is named after herbalist Leonhart Fuchs. The species name sinense indicates that the plant originated in China, nipponicum indicates Japanese origin, while tartarica refers to a part of Central Asia formerly known as Tartary. In a more general sense, pratensis means “of the meadows” while alpinus means “from high mountains growing above the timber line” and aquaticus means “growing in or near the water.”
Examples of descriptive species names include flore-pleno, meaning double-flowered, floribunda meaning abundant flowers, lutescens meaning yellowish, nitidus meaning shining, pedatus meaning shaped like a bird’s foot, and repens or reptans mean creeping.
When it comes to registering hybrids and cultivars, certain genera have a lot more activity than others. Orchids, daylilies, roses, crabapples, peonies, hostas -- the registered names go up into the hundreds and thousands. The American Hosta Society notes: “Registration is the process of submitting a cultivar name, description and other pertinent information for consideration to the registrar. . .The primary purpose of registration is to limit confusion among hosta cultivars and cultivar names. . .It is not the responsibility of the registrar to judge the merit or uniqueness of a cultivar.”
The International Society for Horticultural Science advises, “There are different sorts of cultivar ranging from clones, which should be genetically identical, to tightly controlled seed-raised cultivars such as F1 hybrids. Article 2 of the Code describes some of the different kinds of cultivar. The only way you can check if your cultivar is new and distinct is by comparing it with existing cultivars. Your new cultivar must be distinguishable from others that exist or have existed.” 4
While there are always disputes about plant classifications, in modern times the most hotly argued challenge to the Code is related to plant patenting and the marketing of trademarked plants. One expert describes part of the problem: “Plant patents provide the patent holder the legal authority to license growers to propagate and sell their protected varieties. The protection lasts for 20 years and is nonrenewable. It is therefore in the best interest of the patent holder to provide for a heavy-duty marketing and promotion campaign concurrent with the plant’s release. Once the 20-year limit is reached, there is no more potential for collection of plant royalties.
“One major stumbling block with plant patents is restriction of the material prior to patent application and award. Once a plant has been distributed, either intentionally or unintentionally, there is typically little, if any, chance to successfully patent protect that plant variety. The exception to this rule is if propagules are distributed under a specific evaluation agreement. . .At the present time, the majority interpretation of patent laws is that a typical plant patent does not protect seedlings or mutations (sports) of a patent protected variety.” 5
According to the U.S. Patent Office, “The law also provides for the granting of a patent to anyone who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber-propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state.
“Asexually propagated plants are those that are reproduced by means other than from seeds, such as by the rooting of cuttings, by layering, budding, grafting, inarching, etc. With reference to tuber-propagated plants, for which a plant patent cannot be obtained, the term "tuber" is used in its narrow horticultural sense as meaning a short, thickened portion of an underground branch. Such plants covered by the term "tuber-propagated" are the Irish potato and the Jerusalem artichoke.
“An application for a plant patent consists of the same parts as other applications with the addition of a plant color coding sheet. The term of a plant patent shall be 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, if the application contains a specific reference to an earlier filed application under 35 U.S.C. 120, 121 or 365(c), from the date of the earliest such application was filed.” 6
Protecting and marketing trademarked plants is even more hotly debated, as companies find ways to circumvent the provisions of the Code. “Confusion arises when a company uses a trademark name as a cultivar name. For example, a particular holly is often designated in the trade as Ilex X ‘China Girl’. Many of you will recognize the name. If, however, you were to come upon Ilex X ‘Mesog’, would you expect to know this holly? Probably not. In fact, the cultivar name for this holly is ‘Mesog’ and the trademark is China Girl ®. This naming practice violates both trademark specifications and nomenclatural rules, but it is becoming increasingly common. The reason is profit. If a breeder patents a new plant, he restricts others from propagating it without paying any royalties. . .When a patent expires, anyone may propagate the plant, but they must call it ‘Mesog’, which does not have any commercial recognition factor. the name China Girl ® is still the property of the original producer.” 7
Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery ( addressed this issue: “The current trend toward the improper and confusing use of trademarks, both by growers and marketers of such plants, has done irreparable long term disservice to the industry by hopelessly confusing the naming of plants and the communication about these plants. . .No one is quite sure why trademarks entered the horticulture arena, but a consensus of nurserymen agree that it was first devised as a marketing tool to sell good plants that had bad cultivar names.
“Some of the larger nurseries soon realized that they were rather adept at coming up with good plant names, but they unfortunately then wanted to keep these names to themselves, so that no other nursery could use them. According to the Code, cultivar names must remain free for everyone to use, which is not what the nurseries desired. Tragically, nurserymen then began intentionally giving their new plants stupid names. . .marketing the plants under their good trademarked name, while everyone else would be left using the stupid nonsensical cultivar name. . .
“Some nurserymen discovered that they could walk a tightrope around the spirit of the law and get the 20 year protection that the plant patent provides, plus a further measure of protection by trademarking a second name for each plant, which they would use to market to the public. Once the patent expired, others could propagate the plant, but could not sell it under the trademark name. A classic example is Monrovia’s Limemound TM spirea. At the end of the patent period, everyone could propagate Spirea ‘Monhub’ PP5834, but they could not legally sell the plant as Limemound TM spirea.” 8
Even though the current system of plant nomenclature is the result of hundreds of years of development, changes in the marketplace have identified gaps such as those described above where regulations must be clarified or expanded. Sometimes, naming a plant can be a simple as eating a Stella D’Oro cookie. The rest of the time, plant propagators put their trust in the Code.


Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine

File Name: Namegame.doc
Word Count: 2,450


Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners, William T. Stearn, 1972/1996, Timber Press, Portland, OR

International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, C. D. Brickell and B. R. Baum, editors, 7th Reprint, 2004, Lubrecht and Kramer, Ltd.

1 “A Word A Day,” February 6, 2005,
2, 3 “ICNCP - It all started in 1952 -- or did it?,” W. T. Stearn, September 7, 1952,

4 “How to Name a New Cultivar,”

5 “Tips: When a rose is a Rose (TM) - Naming and Protection of New Plant Varieties,” by Dr. Paul Cappiello, University of Kentucky CA Adjunct Professor of Horticulture, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Landscape Plant News, Volume 10, No. 3, 1999, Chanhassen, MN

6 “Plant Patents,” U. S. Patent and Trademark Office,

7 “The Language of Horticulture,” by Denise Adams, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, The Ohio State University,

8 “The Trademark Myth - When a Name is Not a Name,” by Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery,

“A Study of Plant Names,” by Ellen Mathys, The Backyard Gardener,

“Cultivar - definition and description,” Database of Botanical Taxonomic Categories,

“Plant Nomenclature,” by Matt Jenks, Purdue University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture,

“Registering Hosta,” and “Hosta Naming Conventions,” American Hosta Society,

“Plant Names,”