Plant Labels: How to Make Sense Of Them

Ed Wike
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What’s In A Name? Plant Naming Conventions

One of the most confusing aspects of the plant world is how they are named. It's one of the things that makes them both fascinating and frustrating to the plant enthusiast. If you assume that the names are just for identification, you can move on to being fascinated.

Label or Latin

The genus and species names are a vital part of every plant's identity. The second part of a plant name is the genus. It is always a capitalized word and is a description of the plant. For example, if you see the plant name Parrotia persica, that means you are looking at the plant genus Parrotia and no other species in that genus.

The species is the second part of the plant name and is always lower case. In the example, Parrotia persica refers to the specific species in the genus Parrotia. The genus is italicized, so you can quickly identify it.

Botanical or Common

The botanical, or common, name for the plant is the last name. In the example, the common names are Persian iron tree and Persian parrot tree.

You may also see common names printed in italics, with a capital first letter. As long as the name starts with a capital letter, don't worry. (The emphasis is there only to help you focus on reading it.)

Common Names

An organism's common name specifies the author of the name and usually relates to the organism's appearance or natural history. Common names for plants are unfortunately vague and often misleading.

Take, for example, the commonly used common plant name "snapdragon." Plants with that common name are members of the Plant Family Scrophulariaceae. At this point, you may be thinking, "Oh, so snapdragons are the plants with the pouch?".

Wrong. "Snapdragons" are also members of the Plant Family Plumbaginaceae!

Snapdragons and plumbago are both members of the Plant Family. That is why they share the same common name. They are also members of Plant Families with similar names, such as Plant Family Scrophulariaceae and Plant Family Plantaginaceae, sharing the common name "snapdragon" because they are both members of the Plant Family Plantaginaceae.

Botanical Names are more precise and are unique to each specific organism. In botanical terms, plants that are members of the Plant Family Scrophulariaceae are referred to as Scrophularia, and plants that are members of the Plant Family Plantaginaceae are referred to as Plantago.

The difficulty in using solely common names is two-fold.

Scientific Names

When your plant gets larger, you may get curious about what it's called. How do you tell? The plant will give you a hint.

Above-ground plant parts will tell you the genus name. For example, a flower stem will indicate the name of the genus in botanical name, such as Echinacea flower beds, Geum, etc.

Under-ground parts will tell you the species name, such as the roots of the same Echinacea.

When found in the wild, plants will be identified a trinomial (or three terms: genus / species / subspecies) since hybridization has taken place to create the cross-species plant. The 3-term name will be the cross-hybridization. Here are examples from the Photo Gallery:

When you find the plant growing in the wild, the plant will be identified with a three-term name including the hybridization.

For example, the above plant is a member of the sunflower family ("Asteraceae" or sunflower), the genus of Gardenia ("Gardenia") and the species of gardenia ("Gardenia jasminoides") or as you will find in the Photo Gallery, "Gardenia jasminoides Big Red".

Why Are These Names Important?

Plants have two names: the first or botanical name and the second, which is the common name.

Botanical names are used by growers, exporters, and scientists. They are derived from a system based on the naming of plants reflected in 14th century Latin.

The Latin name (for example, "Lilium candidum") is used by scientists; however, there are other names based on the specific country or region that you buy the plant from.

The Latin name is not the only component that identifies the plant.

The Latin name consists of two words. The first word represents the genus to which the plant belongs, the second represents the species (lilium = Lily; candidum = White).

But remember: there is no fixed rule as to the number of words or the length of the name.

A plant may have a number of different names, which can cause confusion among the general public.

In addition, the common name can, in a few instances, cause confusion as to the exact plant.

If both Common name and the Latin name are known, you can figure out the plant you are trying to grow.

Learn Latin and Spanish names because a number of Spanish names are used by growers, exporters, and nurseries, particularly in California.

Care Instructions On Plant Labels

You've made great efforts to keep your plants alive, and one of your most important goals is keeping things under control.

You don’t want to over water or over feed them, which can make them sick.

To help you do that by taking a look at the plant label.

Plant labels can contain vital information about plant care and basic plant care instructions.

It can also indicate plant positioning instructions, for example, whether the plant should be kept indoors, outdoors, or both.

Plant labels should give you the information you need to store and take care of the plants.

Are they plants that like to soak up the sun?

Or do they like to live in partial shade?

If it says, “bright sunlight,” you know they need to live in partial shade.

Also, different plants will have different watering needs. Some prefer to have themselves in water every day, while others need to soak up the moisture of dew once a week.

If you notice that one of your plants is looking a little wilted or having some trouble growing, go to the plant label and remember these basic things about how often and when to water your plants.

Plant Placement and Lighting Requirements

Plants that live in the tropics are accustomed to growing in very bright light while those that live at higher latitudes usually do better if they receive a little less light. In most cases placing plants according to their particular light and temperature requirements will keep them looking great and healthy.

As a general rule, tropical and desert plants do best in high light conditions (a bright south or west-facing window) whereas plants that live somewhere in between will usually do best with a less intense light source (a partially shaded east or north-facing window).

However, you should also pay attention to the type of light your plant needs. If you read the fine print on the label you'll probably find that it says something like, "Warm, bright light" or "Sun to part shade." So before you place the plant, take a moment to look closely at it and imagine how it will look in your particular growing conditions. You might make a choice that contradicts the label on the pot. Or you might choose to supplement the plant's light with additional artificial lights.

Sometimes a plant's requirements for light will say something along the lines of, "Bright, filtered light." This is usually a good choice for a plant that doesn’t do well in bright light indoors. It will thrive under these conditions.

Plant Spacing

Knowing the spacing for a plant is important to making educated decisions about how to put a garden together. The way plants grow and their growth habits vary greatly so knowing the spacing for a plant is essential in avoiding wasted space and areas that are overcrowded.

The common spacing standards for plants are:

Bulb plants (annuals or perennial): Four inches apart

Rhubarb and asparagus: Six inches apart

Root crops and vegetables: Six to eight inches apart

Cabbages and cauliflowers: Ten inches apart

Strawberries: Eight to ten inches apart

Beans, peas, and tomatoes: Six to ten inches apart

Cucumber and corn: Six to eight inches apart

Beds: Four feet apart

Rows: Two to three feet apart

Hardiness Zone

Hardiness zones are regions of the earth that have specific climates. They are determined by the number of hours per year that lows are below 50ºF.

Hardiness zones are also determined by the amount of snow and at what temperature it starts to melt. For greenhouse gardening and in plant hardiness zones, temperatures are measured five feet above the ground and have a positive effect on the plant. Only the first number, the zone, normally indicates a plant's hardiness. Gardening zones have been created in order to let gardeners know what plants are suitable to grow in their area. The map that displays the U.S.D.A. plant hardiness zones depicts zones from 1 – 10.

Plants grown in certain climates will be able to survive the harsh winters. If you live in zones 3a or 5a you'd need to persuade your favorite plants to stay healthy over the winter months. Most perennials are perennials because there is somewhere in the world where they can survive the winter months. This is known as survival of the fittest. Of course, you don't necessarily need to have cold weather if you want to grow plants that are accustomed to growing in cooler climates.

Plant Description

Plant description on flower pots is one of the most misunderstood part of gardening. It is simply a description of the plant and sometimes some information on its needs, behavior and cultivation and care tips.

In most cases, manufacturers of houseplants have their own classification system of plant varieties, and they often use terms that may be unfamiliar to an average gardener. What you need to do is to ignore these classifications (or place them in the back of your mind) unless you need them for searching and comparing plants to find the right one for you. If you are planting a new plant yourself, the most important thing is to understand what is written on the plant label.

Some of these classifications are easy to understand: plants can be perennial, annual, biennial, or perennial-like; they can be grass, tree, shrub, vine, fern, succulent, cactus, groundcover, bulb, foliage, or herb; they can be small or large, indoor or outdoor plants, or something else all together.

Most of the classifications are less self-explanatory. For example, let’s take weeper (trailing) varieties and upright varieties.

Watering Requirements

Most plants will require regular watering. The amount of water also depends on the temperature, the level of light, the kind of soil used and the age and type of plant.

Keep in mind that for the first year it could be necessary to water the plants more frequently. However, the frequency of watering can be decreased as the plant grows and becomes accustomed to its environment.

A good watering tip is to water the entire plant, not simply the leaves. This will also prevent spotting or streaking of the leaves.

Make sure that you don’t overwater your plants. This will cause the roots to rot. A good way to make sure you don’t over water is to use a soil meter.

When watering pick a time when the leaves are dry, using a watering can or a drip irrigation system. Watering the plant in the morning is more beneficial as the plant is more likely to retain the water within its root system.

Plant Maturity or Growth Rate

There are many botanical terms used to describe the growth habit and maturity of a leafy plant. Here’s a short list of common terms:

  • Perennial: A plant that comes back every year
  • Deciduous: It means that the plant sheds its leaves all at once. It is the opposite of perennial in the sense that it dies every year
  • Shrub: A woody plant that doesn’t grow very tall. They reach anywhere from a foot to fifteen feet. Common shrubs are lilac, hydrangea and forsythia
  • Tree: A woody plant that grows very tall and can live out its natural life
  • Climber: A woody plant that grows upward using its stems
  • Vine: A woody plant that grows downward, except for the way it climbs upward.


When it comes to planting an ivy plant that’s turning out to be too big in your small house, we cannot simply dig up and transplant it in another location.

This is where the technique of propagation comes in handy. Propagation of plants is the process of creating new plants that have the same genetic traits as the parent plants.

Here are some common methods of propagation that we can do at home, depending on our needs:

Air layering – The top growth of the plant is covered with a moist rooting medium and covered with a plastic material, such as a milk jug. As the plant grows, more rooting medium is added. The air layering then allows for more roots to develop, which will eventually develop into new plants.

Bulbilation – A small globule is produced by the plant at the tip of its stem. This globule then becomes a new plant if it is left to grow.

Division – The process of dividing a plant is typically done during the dormant period of the plant. This is typically done using a shovel with a pointed blade. The plant is carefully cut into sections in the right proportion. New roots often grow from this process.

Final Thoughts

The fact that the actual content you are receiving when looking at plant labels is open for interpretation presents a challenge to anyone, especially when it comes to choosing what is right for their garden. However, as you have seen, with information and knowledge you can make sense of them.

The role of the plant label is to provide identifiable information on the plant and its characteristics so that the person who purchased it can obtain it if they choose to do so again in the future. It may also provide tips on how to increase your success rate when growing it so your investment is not for naught. Some labels provide planting instructions for those who might be purchasing the plant as a gift for someone. Higher quality labels even have information on how to transform your dead plant into a new plant.