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Learn to Speak "Garden Language"
By 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
Garden Web Glossary.

Botanical Names

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

"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

Leaf Characteristics

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.  

Perennials, Annuals, Biennials

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.
Pinching and Deadheading

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.
Hardening Off

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 or Cultivated

"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.