A tree is not just a tree, a flower is not just a flower and a fruit is just not a fruit. To describe a plant by saying that it is a “tropical tree with green leaves and yellow flowers” is similar to describing a person by saying “it is a Latino man with black hair and dark skin”. This oversimplification of descriptions leaves one scratching one’s head in wonder and as clueless as ever. Plants, as humans, are not all created equal. They are characterized and classified in an assortment of ways to distinguish them, or their groupings or types, and to help in their identification. Having an identity is as important in the plant world as it is in the human world, although, plants, unlike humans, can be preserved for future usage and benefit – an even greater reason for correct identification.
Horticulturists and Botanists spend lifetimes exploring, discovering and breeding new plant species, varieties and cultivars for public benefit and enjoyment. Their system of botanical nomenclature (naming) is complex and beyond the comprehension of the common man. But, in the extensive world of plants it sets apart one type of tree, or flower, or fruit – one Latino man – from the other and gives them the recognition they deserve. Even though the system of botanical nomenclature was established and is strictly upheld mainly for scientific purposes, it is out of respect, interest and one’s own personal benefit to, at least, have an awareness of this naming system and the significance for its existence.
The most familiar classifications for all living organisms, whether in the Plant or Animal Kingdom, are by genus and species. But, Horticultural classification (not botanical) goes beyond that and includes in the classification, for further definition, the plants variety and/or its cultivar. If you have ever been one who mail-ordered from seed or plant catalogs, you probably have a better understand and appreciation of these terms.
Varieties of a plant are just that – some variation in a plant species that occurs in nature, through cross-pollination, mutation and/or adaptation – for instance, when a white flower is discovered on a plant that has only been known to produce pink flowers. Hence, a new variety is born and the new variety name may be alba – for white. Variety names follow the species and are always italicized and lower case. For example, the most common Croton seen in our tropical gardens is Codiaeum variegatum pictum. Older nomenclature systems sometimes designated varieties by preceding the name with the abbreviation var. – Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum.
Cultivars, on the other hand, do not occur naturally in the wild. The term cultivar is a contraction derived from the term “cultivated variety”. It is a variety that was discovered in the wild and is now being “cultivated” or intentionally reproduced by man. When distinct, desirable variations occur during reproduction/’‘cultivation” of the cultivated varieties then, walla, a new ‘cultivar’ is born.
Unlike a variety which can produce genetically similar, identical plants, cultivars usually do not grow “true” from seed and will need to be propagated by some means other than seed, like grafting, cuttings or repeated hybridization. This is why many fruits. like Mangoes, Avocado and Oranges for example, that are attempted to be grown from seed, do not come out tasting or even looking like the fruit in which the seed was taken. A plant is only considered true to its cultivar name if the distinguishing characteristics that made them unique from the original plants are retained when they are propagated by cuttings or grafts.
Cultivar names are not italicized. They appear after the species name and are enclosed in single quotes, for example: Heliconia chartacea ‘Sexy Pink’. To produce even more extraordinary foliage or flower characteristics, cultivars can also be crossed, as species are crossed. Any hybrid plant that is the result of cross-pollination by man is designated with an “x” in the plant name. If you see that the names are in single quotes, then the plant was a result of the crossing of two cultivars and not two species.
There are probably numerous cultivars that never go to “market”. Researchers select, and re-select, for the most desirable and outstanding characteristics such as color or form of a flower, the yield of a crop, resistance to disease, or ability to increase pollination. When propagated correctly, the plants of a true cultivar should retain their special characteristics. Whether you know it or not, you already have some awareness of the plethora of cultivars through the diversity of color and forms found in popular garden plants like heliconias, crotons, gingers, roses and camellias but, also, the world’s major fruit, cereal and vegetable crops are also cultivars that are the results of years and years of research and selection.
As confusing as it all may sound, knowing a plants ‘cultivar’ or usually generally referred to as “variety” (but now you know better), can be helpful. Here in Costa Rica, these names seem to be given so little importance, unlike the U.S. There are advantages to a buyer/consumer in knowing the difference between the ‘cultivars’ of apple. For example ‘Red Delicious’ is a sweeter, red-skinned apple mainly for eating fresh and ‘Granny Smith’ is a tarter, green-skinned apple popular for baking and making pies. After my last article on Mangoes, I started exploring the different varieties of Mangoes, and wow!, what a difference there is. Unfortunately, here in CR, many vendors do not know what varieties they are selling and stores do not display their names. So, like many things here, it’s a crap shoot when buying fruits, veggies, ornamental plants and fruit trees.
One objective of the future botanical garden is to bring into the light and to raise awareness of the names of the numerous cultivars of ornamental plants and fruits. Passing this information on to our visitors will give them an upper hand when selecting plants for their own gardens or harvested fruits for their table.
Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 7 years. She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected], 2777-5149