Decoding Plant Tags

When shopping for plants, the plant tags are the key to figuring out what to buy. A lot of times you can stroll through a garden center and look for what catches your eye, but if it’s early in the season, plants are not at their mature height yet, or may not even be flowering.  This is especially true for perennials that do not bloom from spring through fall.  By reading the plant tags thoroughly, you can learn just what to expect from each plant you select. 

The first thing you’ll notice on the tag is the picture.  This however, should not be what determines whether or not you purchase the plant. Between tags fading in the sun or mistakes in printing, the photos are often not exactly what the plant will look like.  The color may look like a real blue in the photo, but as gardeners know, there are not a whole lot of true blue flowers, so the actual plant may be more of a purple. 

The next thing that will be on every tag is the plant name. The name of a plant sold at a nursery should include the genus, species and common name. The first name you’ll see on the tag is the genus name. It’s always capitalized and italicized. The species name follows the genus name and is also italicized, but is not capitalized. In the example on the left “Nemesia” is the genus, “hybrid” is the species in this case and Sunsatia Lemon is the common name. 

A genus is a cluster of plants with common characteristics that are easily recognized. Aster, Lamium and Petunia are examples of genus names. A genus may contain a single species or more than 100 species (as in Rosa). The genus is always the first word of the two Latin names of a plant--for example, Lamium maculatum or Rosa rugosa. 

A species is a group of similar plants that live together in nature and cross breed among themselves. They have common characteristics and reproduce baby plants that are consistently like the parent plant, although there can be slight differences in appearance. The next time you walk through the woods, notice the variation in plants of a single species. For example, columbine. The flower size and color, and even foliage, vary among each specific plant, but they are all part of the same species. 

Plant characteristics include: 

  •  Height and width  
  • Length and season of bloom  
  • Flower type, size, shape and color  
  • Leaf size, shape and color  
  • Bud shape and color  
  • Stem shape and color 
  • Seasonal foliage color 

All of these characteristics can vary depending on the genus, species, cultivar, hybrid and variety.  

Typically, the front of a tag will list the plant's common and scientific names, and summarize key information about it. Symbols on the tag give size information, as well as sun, soil, and water requirements.  

The reverse side of the tag is usually devoted to more specific details on how to transplant and care for the plant.  Plant tags often have additional plant characteristics listed on their tags, usually near the picture.  These characteristics include if they attract butterflies, bees or hummingbirds, if they are deer resistant and if they are draught resistant or need a lot of water. 

By doing a little bit of reading, you can plan a beautiful garden that will bloom when you want, grow as tall as you want, and attract the animals you want.  You can also ensure you’re not in for any surprises when your garden begins to grow and mature throughout the season.  A great gardening tip is to save, date and store the tags for the next year.  This way you know what you planted and if it worked out.