What’s in a name?


A guest rant by Dee/Red Dirt Rambling

A young tree of L. indica
Lagerstroemia indica 

Writing about gardening isn’t rocket science or even brain
surgery, but it isn’t easy either. 
It’s not enough anymore to correctly identify a plant by its botanical,
cultivar and common name. In the last decade, plant hybridizers and propagators
began to patent their new creations with gusto and then trademark them. To say
this causes garden writers and editors a lot of headaches is an understatement.

In journalism school, I was taught to write clearly and
concisely about my subject. I’m essentially providing information to the reader,
but when writing about my great passion, I also want to capture the romance of
fauna, flower and vegetable while encouraging other gardeners.

In the past, if I wrote about a modern rose, it was fairly
simple. I identified it botanically and by class and then listed the cultivar
in single quotes.  Now, with plant
patents and trademarks, it takes more than a correct botanical i.d., and don’t
get me started on the taxonomists—coleus recently changed to the nearly
unpronounceable Solenostemon scutellarioides which perplexed everyone.  I must also determine if the plant’s name
is a cultivar or a trademark (or if they are one and the same). If a cultivar,
it should be surrounded by single quotation marks. If a trademark, hybridizers
would like an ® or a ™ behind the name depending on where it is within the
process. Add to this that editors and writers can’t agree whether the trademark
symbol should even be listed, and you’ll begin to understand the complexity.

It’s been my experience editors usually want cultivar names listed,
and with some of the newer plants, these are becoming more difficult to find
because hybridizers want us to promote their trademark.

According to one magazine’s guidelines, the crapemyrtle
Tightwad Red®, would be Lagerstroemia indica 'Whit V' Tightwad Red®
(crapemyrtle). If I include all of this information in the article every time I
list the plant, even while shortening Lagerstroemia to L., it makes for some clumsy

To be fair, I wondered why patenting and trademarks became de
rigueur, so I called Dr. Carl Whitcomb, who is a
crapemyrtle breeder, and asked him.

 “A plant
doesn’t leave the farm until it is distinctly different from one in the trade,
and it takes numerous tests and trials to make sure you’re satisfied this plant
is unique and will make enough royalties to justify the expense,” he said.

In the twenty-six years of his business, Dr. Whitcomb grew over
half a million plants and yet, as of now, he’s patented only eight. He feels
patents and trademarks protect his property rights. If a company wants to grow L.
indica ‘Whit II’ Dynamite® for example, it signs a license agreement and pays a
royalty fee for each plant sold. Plant patents only last twenty years. So, Dr.
Whitcomb also trademarks a name he hopes will resonate with the public. The
trademark application requires a unique cultivar name, and Dr. Whitcomb chooses
one which is less desirable. As long as he continues to renew the trademark,
even when the patent expires, he hopes Dynamite® becomes the standard, and companies
will continue to sell the plant as such.

After my talk with Dr. Whitcomb, I understand his reasoning.
However, it doesn’t make my job any easier, and sometimes, I think the use of so
many names puzzles the public especially when writers make mistakes. How many
times have you seen trademark names incorrectly identified with single quotes?

By the way, Dr. Whitcomb wants you know that the common name
for L. indica should be written as one word, not as crepe myrtle or crape
myrtle because it isn’t a myrtle tree, and the USDA database agrees with

Yet, if you search the common name, you’ll find it written
as two words almost everywhere.

See what I mean? 

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. All the writing issues presented are the least to worry. The future pain in the ass, is the similarity between the headaches presented and trans genetic seeds and traditional farming. In my intercontinental humble opinion.

  2. You’ve got another rant about the MONEY part of all this patenting & cultivating.

    What does it bode for landscapes of the future?

    $%#@^&^*& are horrible new plants. They are patented, marketed & sold nationally/internationally. Magazines selling their ads write loving artcles about them. One of those writers told me the editor pushed the article, even after being told the plants don’t perform well in landscapes.

    Lecturing across the country I’ve seen @)(#$&@^$( in many landscapes. None look happy.

    Bad plants, good marketing. There’s a rant.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Common names have no real rules, so you can call them crepe myrtles, crape myrles, or crapemyrtles. It makes no difference.

    I agree that the trademarked names are a pain, but I’m glad I’m not in the business where I’m trying to make a buck trying to convince folks that my new plant breed is oso much better than another.

    For those who’d like more of the basics on plant names see: http://sky-bolt.com/commonnames.htm

  4. I so agree with you rant, and especially with Tara.
    It used to be the case that you propagated a plant because it was a good plant, not because it made money only.
    Things have become so complicated that I find it hard to blame people who just use the common name. Anyway, what does ‘Dynamite’ or ‘Let’s Dance’ tell you about the plant or the people who gave it to us?
    Oh for the poetry of ‘Buxton’s Blue’, ‘Apricot Queen’, a simple ‘Purple Stem’ or even ‘Rubra Compacta’ at least means something (once you get the hang of it)
    By the way, smile anyway; you know the alternative.
    Vincent Dunne

  5. Don’t forget to add the PPAF#1234 in the formal name. YUCK!

    ‘Plant names’ is one of our industry’s major fragmentation points. How many names can a plant have? Geez.

    Recently we took a data feed of botanical plant names from a retailer. Nearly 50% of the plant names were abbreviated – many misspelled – making the list nearly illegible by the data reader.

    Our industry needs an ID# for each plant/cultivar so that databases can talk to each other with confidence.

    Imagine the day that breeder, grower, broker, retailer and consumer all share CORRECT information about plants (including availability).

    Steve Cissel

  6. I think the fact that common names have no rules is the most confusing part of this whole issue. This is why I prefer not to use common names at all. If there are 10 different common names for a plant and 2 of them could as easily refer to a totally different plant, this does not lead to a good result for consumers and/or writers.

  7. I think the folks doing all the breeding and new plant introductions are shooting themselves in the foot to a certain extent with all this cultivar plus trademark names and patent stuff. Yes a garden magazine and other publications have a certain obligation to get the name as detailed and correct as possible. Making it difficult for the writers is only going to cause problems.

    Your average, even your passionate gardener, may not give a rat’s ass what the real and true correct name is. They want to know a plant’s growing needs, sort of, overall form and habit and if it is pretty. End of story. Very very few of them will wander into a nursery or shop online with an absolute specific patented, trademarked cultivar in mind. Close is usually good enough.

    A huge swath of the gardening public doesn’t even know the common names of things. The botanical nomenclature might as well be in Martian for them. Piling on cutesy trademarks and cultivar names is only adding to their overall state of confusion about plants.

    Imagine if you will the hapless homeowner going into a nursery and asking the often knowledge free staff for Dynamite or the Tightwad.WTF!

  8. I think it all depends on what you are writing and who your readers are. Sometimes it is just too complicated for its own good. Common names are a mess, with multiple duplications and many having no descriptive qualities at all. Scientific names are also a mess in that they are not a stable carved-in-stone system (with the lumpers and splitters among the taxonomists) and very few people follow the rules (Capitalize the first letter of the genus, lower case for the species, either italicize them both or underline them to set them apart from the non-scientific text…) Far to many of the names in either system make no sense in present day – plants named johnsonii??? So what if a Johnson was involved, it means little to me now; and plants named japonicus when they really came from China but were noticed in Japan first.

    It’s a losing battle. Too many people, too many interpretations of the rules…

    The whole plant patenting gestapo thing smacks of Monsanto dominating the grain crops debacle. To me anyway. But what do I know, I still say Klem-a-tiss.

  9. You have presented valid points, Dee, but I doubt it will change the way the breeders are naming their potential jackpots. I agree with Christopher, most of the buying public don’t care about all those names. Like the Knockout Rose, they neither know, nor care about Radrazz.

  10. Here’s a real problem looming on the horizon. Let’s say I have a nice crepe myrtle seedling in my garden. I can name it Lagerstroemia ‘Dinamight.’ A poor hapless gardener could see it at a garden center, confuse it with the trademarked plant, and buy the wrong plant. These silly names are doing no one any favors.

  11. Latin names are useful, the seemingly meritless changes – such as the Coleus example are annoying… but the requirements for intricate naming systems on the buying side (or simply the every day gardener) seems like torture…. unless it come on the side of the professionals who are selling the plant. To help a nursery or garden center to be more reliable in supplying their customers with the proper names seems like a real service.

    Some of this would benefit from Occam’s Razor, methinks.

    I enjoyed your post, Dee.

  12. As quoted from Christopher C NC above: “Your average, even your passionate gardener, may not give a rat’s ass what the real and true correct name is.” Well, that’s me! Crape Myrtle, Crepe Myrtle, Crape Myrtle!

    I personally don’t care, and I’ve been seriously gardening for some 17 years. My two close gardener friends also don’t care.

  13. I worked for 32 years as a copy editor (later spelled copyeditor at my boss’s insistence) at a university press. We published a number of books on gardening, wildflowers, etc. One author insisted that on one-word spelling for Bermudagrass, which looks silly, and St. Augustinegrass, which looks sillier (and note that he did allow a space after St.). This seems to be the new trend in the “scientific” standardization of common names, and possibly in the scholarly language in general, judging from my director’s liking for “copyeditor.” A bad trend in my opinion.

  14. Thanks for passing along the tip on how to write “crapemyrtle.” I just moved to Charlotte, where the tree in question abounds, and I’ve been writing it as “crepe myrtle.” I now realize I was referring to a mythical tree made from either a gauzy fabric or some thin French pancakes.

    Thanks for helping me to stop embarrassing myself.

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