Naming cultivars requires patience, persistence, precision

Updated Jun 14, 2018
Osteospermum ‘Pink Whirls’ is an example of a cultivar name.Osteospermum ‘Pink Whirls’ is an example of a cultivar name.

What’s in a name? Romeo is right that if you called a rose by another name, it would still smell as sweet, but in the landscaping business, knowing the correct name of a plant is important.

Even more so is knowing its cultivar. Say, for example, you have a client living in an area prone to fire blight, and they want to have flowering pear trees installed. You wouldn’t want to confuse the cultivars ‘Autumn Blaze’ with ‘Stonehill,’ as one is susceptible to the disease and the other is resistant.

While resistance to disease doesn’t equal immunity, the ‘Stonehill’ cultivar has a far better chance of surviving.

So who’s going around determining the minute variations of all these plants, and more importantly, who’s getting to name them?

The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP) has a set of rules and recommendations for naming new cultivars and it is updated periodically.

The process of naming a cultivar is predictably exact. First, you must determine that the plant actually is a new cultivar. This means that the plant is distinct from others and is uniform in its appearance, and also that those attributes do not change.

If it meets these criteria, then it’s time to evaluate whether the new group is worth naming. There needs to be a genuine improvement from existing cultivars to rate a new one.

After ensuring the cultivar is distinguishable from others that exist or have existed, that its attributes don’t change and that it represents an improvement over similar cultivars, then it’s time to think of a name.

Choosing a name is harder than it looks, as some plants have hundreds, if not thousands of cultivars already. To determine whether your proposed name is in use or has been used in the past, there are species-specific International Cultivar Registration Authorities (ICRA) who keep track of all the registered names that are, or have been, in use.

Here are some of the rules that go into naming a cultivar:

  1. Make sure your proposed name is unique and that the epithet is in a modern language other than Latin.
  2. Make sure that your name cannot be confused either in spelling or pronunciation with an existing one.
  3. Make sure that your name could not be interpreted as being likely to exaggerate the merits of the cultivar.
  4. Make sure that the epithet of your name has no more than 10 syllables and no more than 30 characters, excluding spaces and the single quotation marks.
  5. Make sure your epithet does not consist of a single letter or solely of numerals.
  6. Do not use any of the following banned words (or their equivalents in any language) in your epithet: cultivar, grex, group, hybrid, maintenance, mixture, selection, series, sport, strain, variety (or the plural form of these words in any language) or the words “improved” or “transformed.”
  7. Do not use any punctuation marks except for the apostrophe, the comma, a single exclamation mark, the hyphen and the period. Do not use fractions or symbols unless they are specifically permitted.
  8. Make sure that your epithet is not, or does not contain, the Latin or common name of its genus or the common name of any species in that genus if use of such might lead to confusion.
  9. Make sure that publication of the cultivar’s name is not against the wishes of its grower or breeder.

It is also advised that the cultivar name be as short as possible and avoids creating false impressions. In order to use a person’s name, their consent must be given.

Once you have selected a proper name and registered with the appropriate ICRA, the new cultivar needs to be published in a nursery catalogue or in the ICRA involved. In order to protect this new name, distribute copies of the publication to the local botanical, agricultural, forestry or horticultural institutions with libraries.

From then on, it’s simply about making a point to label your plant clearly with its epithet and discourage the use of other names – for instance, to boost sales – for the plant instead.

The Attachments Idea Book
Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
Attachments Idea Book Cover