University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Whether you're reading catalogs or books, visiting garden sites online, or talking with other gardeners and garden store personnel, you may run across some plant terms.  Many of these pop up (with definitions) periodically in these articles, but I thought it might be useful to gather together a few important terms to make sure you'll be ready to "talk" and to understand gardening this season.  These aren't the scientific Latin names of plants, which is a whole other article for another time. A great source for many more is online (

Speaking of plant names, the "botanical name" is the scientific one recognized internationally.  Even if you're not sure about the pronunciation, if you are close or have it written, you'll know just what plant is being mentioned.  For instance, if someone mentions loosestrife, are they talking about the purple (Lythrum), or the yellow and possibly white ones (Lysimachia).  The first word in the scientific name is the genus, the second applies to the species.

"Common names" are what most use to talk about plants, but just be aware as in the above example they can be misleading.  Plants often have more than one common name, and they can vary by region, and may even apply to more than one plant.  Does coneflower mean the traditional purple one (Echinacea) or actually another name for black-eyed daisy (Rudbeckia).

Another name I use, and you'll see often, is "cultivar". This is simply short for cultivated variety, and refers to a very uniquely different plant in a species that was made by humans and didn't appear naturally.  For the latter you should use the term "variety".  This being said, you'll see the terms used interchangeably and often incorrectly, nothing to be too concerned about as a gardener.

Then there are the types of plants by their leaf characters.  "Evergreens" keep their leaves
year-round, "semi-evergreen" may lose them especially in cold climates, and "deciduous" annually lose their leaves.  These terms usually apply to "woody" shrubs and trees, which, provided they are hardy, are perennial in nature.  Yet the term "perennial" usually refers to "herbaceous" plants that die back to the ground each year. 

Contrasted with perennials are those herbaceous plants that complete their life cycle in one year-- the annuals or annual flowers.  "Biennials" complete their life cycle in two seasons, the most common example being the hollyhock.  Many times biennials "reseed" or "self sow", their seeds giving rise to new plants each year so giving the appearance they are perennial.  Watch plant descriptions for those that "self sow", as they can seed all over your garden and become weeds, such as mallows often do in mine.

Especially when buying annual seeds and vegetables, watch for the term "hybrid".  These are plants created from crossing at least two parent plants that are closely related.  So if you collect seed from these hybrids, who knows what they will grow.  You need the actual parent plants to get the same cultivars you bought.

There are terms specific to what most just call "bulbs".  These are swollen underground portions, botanically stems, on some plants that store food and from which the plants arise.  Technically the term to use, and to impress others when talking, is "geophytes" for this group.  "Bulbs" are actually those with the growing point surrounded by fleshy scales, botanically leaves, such as with daffodils and onions.  "Corms" are solid and wider than high, such as with gladiolus and crocus.  "Tubers" are thickened underground stems that don't creep, often irregular in shape, such as with dahlias.  Once again, if you just use the term bulb for any of these, don't worry about the horticultural police coming after you.
When it comes to culture, "pinching" is a term that to a non-gardener may sound odd.  This is simply lightly pruning back a stem, such as nipping off the tip of a chrysanthemum shoot to get it to branch.  If you pinch back flowers that are past, this is called "deadheading", another term that to a non-gardener sounds like you're going to a rock concert or something worse.
Whether a plant is preparing itself for winter, or you're getting seedlings ready for the great outdoors by exposing to cool temperatures in spring, the terms you'll see are "hardening off" or "acclimating".  Perennials, both herbaceous and woody, if they aren't winter killed are in a resting state called "dormancy".
"Native" is a term often seen now, referring to plants that were originally growing in an area at a certain point -- often undefined.  A plant may seem native, like many of our roadside wildflowers that you see all over, but if it originally came from elsewhere such as the white Queen Anne's lace from Europe, it is said to be "naturalized".  If a "cultivated" plant, or one we plant in our gardens, escapes into the wild and displaces native plants it is said to be "invasive".  This latter terms also refers to plants, sometimes called "thugs", that spread aggressively even within our gardens and crowd out other plants. The important point about these terms, often confused, is that whether a plant is invasive depends more on its behavior than on its origin.

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