Backfill 9

Welcome, but you don't have to. . .

by Derek Burch

This will not be of general interest, but if a few people who want to understand a little about plant names will read it, it will not be a waste of internet space - particularly if even one were involved in writing catalogues or price lists or (dare I hope) articles about plants.

This will be a look at cultivar names, common names and selling names.

There are rules in life which cannot be enforced but which are followed by most people of good will once they know about them. Naming of garden plants comes in this category.

Scientists are obliged to use the correct name for an organism if their work is to be taken seriously, and if they want to communicate with their fellows. Under these circumstances there are rules which they must follow, which usually lead them to a name made up of a genus and a specific epithet that are unique in being attached to a particular organism (Cyclamen hederaceum is always Cyclamen hederaceum, for example).

Let's take that as a given and set it aside. In the world of gardening there are many plants that started life as species of wild plants (which would have a "scientific name"), but which, since having been brought into cultivation and grown and propagated, have developed different forms. They are still the same species, but show stable differences. A way of distinguishing these forms is needed, which can be by a descriptive common name or a fancier name (selling name) applied by a nursery, but more and more in these days of long-distance communication turns to a more formal system. There is an attempt by people who care about names to bring some order as this formal system develops It applies when the raisers have decided that their plants are worth naming as "cultivars" ("cultivated varieties").

Rules for this have been agreed to by scientists from all over the world. Very simply they say this: If a plant has been selected for a particular set of characteristics, and it is clearly distinct, uniform and stable in those attributes, and if it maintains those when it is propagated vegetatively, then it is a cultivar, and may be given a cultivar name. (It is possible to have seed-propagated cultivars, but they need a more legalistic definition, so let's leave those out.) Anyone can look at a population of plants, pick out a special one, propagate and test it for stability and uniformity and decide that it is worth being distinguished with a cultivar name. There is a gray area here with a plant collected and brought in from the wild. It should not be given a cultivar name unless it was a distinctive version of the wild species, but this may be hard to determine..

There are rules about the form of name - often unfortunately ignored, but which will be suggested strongly to the introducer if the name is submitted to the International Registration Authority for that particular plant group. These registration authorities are simply an individual or an organisation with an interest in a plant group, and enough resources and stability to take on the record-keeping involved. The origin of the cultivar is usually supplied to the registrar, and is valuable information to anyone trying to understand the relationships and history of the plant group, but it is possible that the person submitting the cultivar name may wish to keep this information to himself, and can scarcely be forced to reveal it. Registering the name is enough to authenticate it as a name, but does not necessarily prove that the plant is different from another cultivar. This avoidance of duplicate names is the real purpose of registering them, but deciding that the plant truly is new is a more complicated matter which is beyond the scope of this short piece.

What is strongly recommended to anyone registering a cultivar name (and a requirement of many registration authorities) is that a standard example of the plant is prepared as a dried specimen and deposited with one or more herbaria, ideally with pictures or drawings or descriptions that show the range of variation of the plant and allow comparison with other cultivar standards. The herbarium of a local botanical garden would recognise the value of these specimens and could advise on their preparation.

Registration Authorities exist for only a few of the more intensively studied groups of plants, but that doesn't leave other plants completely out of the picture. Standards may be prepared and placed in herbaria, and would make it clear that the developer of the cultivar was serious in establishing his name for it. The word "establishment" has a particular meaning in the code, and involves the publication in printed material, carrying at least the year' date, of enough of a description of the plant to make it recognisable. This will often be simply a nursery catalogue or annotated price list. The idea here, of course, is to set the time at which the cultivar name came into being in association with the plant.

The form of the name has several restrictions, some of which are still in dispute. One thing agreed, however, is that the cultivar name must not have a latin form. This seems very hard for many gardeners to accept, perhaps because a latin ending to a word seems to make it more important, but that is the case. There cannot be any cultivars 'Burchii' no matter how flattered I would be by this - 'Burch's Bountiful', yes, 'Burchii', no!

Notice that I have been using single quotation marks on the cultivar names, and starting each word with a capital letter. This is the form specified by the code, and the single quotation marks are what indicates that this is a cultivar name rather than a common name or a species name. This is significant, because the code only insists on a genus plus the cultivar name to name a cultivar, although genus and species may also be used with the cultivar name attached. So Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Sunset' and Hibiscus 'Sunset' are both acceptable for this particular cultivar, but, in fact, with genera in which a lot of species may enter into the parentage, using just the genus and cultivar may be the more accurate form. This system of using only the genus plus cultivar as the name is getting support from a number of taxonomists who recognise that forcing the names of cultivated plants under the same rules that are used for wild plants means compromise at many levels and may end up giving an inaccurate picture of plant relationships.

The cultivar name is the most regulated and most sure way of naming a plant when one is available. It doesn't preclude using a common name as well or in its place, but, as you must be tired of being told, common names change with the wind. Where the cultivar's name doesn't have enough pizzazz to spur sales, a nursery will often add a trade designation (selling name), and give both the cultivar name and a trade designation. There are typographical conventions that distinguish these parts of a name, and for completeness they go like this:

Genus species 'Cultivar Name' TRADE DESIGNATION Common name

This reads: Capital letter for genus, lower case for species name, both words in italics; cultivar name with capitalised first letters, in roman type and enclosed in single quotation marks; and, finally, the trade designation in all-capital letters. A list might also give a common name at the end of this long name. This would be in roman type with no quotation marks.

This is getting to be rather tedious reading, and following the recommendations may be exhibiting a little too much concern with accuracy for everyday life. Is it worth making a fuss over? Probably not, but then it only takes a little discipline to get it right rather than to continue with errors. Ah, well. . .

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If you would like to read more about STANDARDS, the Royal Horticultural Society, who have taken the lead in this matter, have a site discussing their importance at