University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
COME TO TERMS WITH PLANTS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Whether you're reading catalogs or books,
visiting garden sites online, or talking with other gardeners and
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
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.
source for many more is online (glossary.gardenweb.com/glossary).
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
what plant is being mentioned. For
instance, if someone mentions loosestrife, are they talking about the
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
can be misleading. Plants often have
more than one common name, and they can vary by region, and may even
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
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
"semi-evergreen" may lose them especially in cold climates, and
"deciduous" annually lose their leaves. These terms usually apply
"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--
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
created from crossing at
least two parent plants that are closely related. So if you
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
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
dahlias. Once again, if you just use the
term bulb for any of these, don't worry about the horticultural police
When it comes to culture,
"pinching" is a term that to a non-gardener may sound odd. This
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
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
certain point -- often undefined. A
plant may seem native, like many of our roadside wildflowers that you
over, but if it originally came from elsewhere such as the white Queen
lace from Europe, it is said to be "naturalized". If a
plant, or one we
plant in our gardens, escapes into the wild and displaces native plants
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.
important point about these terms, often confused, is that whether a
invasive depends more on its behavior than on its origin.