Clarifying some bloomin' confusion

Getting to the root of problems with plant names

In the Garden

March 14, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

One fall, a gardening friend and I stood at the edge of my wildlife bed, taking stock of blossom, berry and seed head.

"Those are good-looking 'Alma Gordons,' " she observed, running a hand over a mound of shell-pink daisylike chrysanthemums.

"They're 'Sheffields,' " I corrected.

She shook her head.

"Nope. 'Alma Gordons.' "

" 'Sheffields,' " I insisted.

" 'Alma Gordons,' " she replied, a little testily.

We finally checked our records to see if one of us had an original source for the variety name. Nope. One variety, two names.

"The process of naming plant varieties is a funny thing," says Steve Frowine, horticulturist at Dutch Gardens in Burlington, Vt. "It's not at all scientific."

"I named a melon 'Serenade' just because I was thinking of Mozart's No. 13 Serenade when I first saw it," says Steve Bellavia, vegetable product manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine.

A scientific system

It's not as though people haven't tried to make plant naming scientific.

Centuries ago Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) created a binomial Latin system based on genus and species. So a botanist in Germany could request a Viola and be sure to get a pansy of some kind, despite the many common names under which they masquerade.

Yet while botanical names ensure the right genus and species, people need variety names in order to get a specific plant and its characteristics -- one variety of a species may hate drought or shade, while another loves it.

For example, Rhododendron 'Washington State Centennial' fries in Maryland summers, while Rhododendron 'Roseum Elegans' thrives.

Unfortunately, variety names are where the confusion starts. Though most large national nurseries are careful not to rename an already-named variety (some are patented, so stakes are high), smaller "mom-and-pop" nurseries are less fastidious.

"A lot of smaller nurseries who propagate plants name their own varieties," says Frowine, "especially if they produce something even slightly different from its parent."

This nursery-by-nursery naming is one way a single plant variety acquires two (or more) different names. It can also happen when a supplier sells a variety identified only by number, such as: Corn No. 113. Each acquiring nursery can then name it.

Some double-naming occurs in translation from overseas supplier to American nursery. For example, the German-developed Achillea 'Hoffnung's' name has been translated as both A. 'Great Expectations' and A. 'Hope' here in the United States. (We won't even get into Asian characters and their many possible meanings.)

Occasionally, plants are purposely renamed here because their translated names will repulse U.S. customers.

"Naming is critical to acceptance in the market," notes Frowine. "There's a variegated grass called 'Feecey's Variety.' It's named for a person but who would buy that?"

Consider Iris 'Baboon Bottom,' a lurid flower with white streaks. I liked the bloom, but the name put me off. The idea is to make the plant more, not less, appealing.

"A bad name is not fair to the plant," Frowine insists.

"We try to give names that conjure up an attribute of the variety," says Don Zeidler, director of marketing at W. Atlee Burpee in Warminster, Pa.

Zeidler named a new Viola variety 'Psychedelic Spring' because it has such vibrant colors. Burpee's new container beefsteak tomato is called 'BushSteak' to indicate the big juicy fruits on a small plant.

Names registered

Ideas for names come from lots of places. In addition to Mozart's compositions, Bellavia searches the dictionary and keeps a card file of possibilities.

"Here we all go out to the fields," says Mark Willis, vegetable produce manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, N.Y. "We show everybody the plant, describe its characteristics, then ask everybody for their suggestions."

Once a variety has a name, the next step is to register it. U.S. seed companies file a form with the American Seed Trade Association in the Federal Seed Laboratory in Washington, D.C. For plants, there is the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants established "to promote uniformity, accuracy, and stability in the naming of agricultural, forestry, and horticultural plants."

Beyond that, some plant societies serve as International Registration Authorities. For example, the Royal Horticultural Society is the international registry for Rhododendrons and Azaleas, though the American Rhododendron Society acts as a clearinghouse for North American varieties. In each case, the registry begins with a search on the proposed name to see whether it's already in use in that species.

"You can have duplicate variety names for different species -- like Fortress corn and Fortress cabbage," explains Willis. "But you're not supposed to name the same variety of one species twice."

Yet in my wildlife garden, my double-named mums are once again poking through the ground. Marcy may call them 'Alma Gordons,' but they'll always be 'Sheffields' to me.


Dutch Gardens

144 Intervale Road Burlington, Vt. 05401 800-944-2250

Harris Seeds

355 Paul Road P.O. Box 24966

Rochester, N.Y. 14624-0966


Johnny's Selected Seeds

184 Foss Hill Road

Albion, Maine 04910-9731


W. Atlee Burpee Co.

300 Park Ave.

Warminster, Pa. 18991-0001


Spring Hill Nurseries

110 W. Elm St.

Tipp City, Ohio 45371-1699


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