Truth in labeling

Is one of my office plants “Dumb cane” or Dieffenbachia? I know what I prefer.

Ah, the joy of being an older, ever-more-crotchety gardener. You can actually watch the birth and death of trends you never went along with. There was an interesting article in an industry mag many of us receive online, Greenhouse Management, about plant labeling. It’s by longtime garden writer, C.L. Fornari, and it’s entitled “The case for better plant labeling at garden centers.”

I couldn’t agree more, and don’t even need to have a case made, but more about that in a minute. Thinking about plant labels reminded me of when QR codes—remember them?—were supposed to be the  salvation of plant labeling. All you needed was the square, black-and-white-patterned code on the label and shoppers could point their phones at it and all the information about the plant would instantly unfold on the screen of the smartphone. This was in 2011 or so; I wrote about it at about that time.

Even then, I expressed reservations, noting that books combined the same information and had the type of physicality that seemed to best suit my gardening practice. And one of our readers said this: The code took me to their regular website that was designed to be viewed on a computer and not a phone. It was impossible to read as the graphics kept merging with the text. The experience was not a good one.

Exactly. The experience was not good and QR code usage died out pretty quickly, at least in the plant world, and I believe, elsewhere, at least when it comes to gaining information without a sales pitch. I never used them. (I also hear they may be making a comeback.)

Getting back to Fornari’s article, she notes that millennial customers are happy with googling plant information, but they want exact botanical names in order to make sure they are getting info about the right plant. Ah. This is also very satisfying to the crotchety gardener. (Though I know that there is another army of crotchety gardeners who insist on common names.) Tropical plants in particular are often sold by common names only, but, with the houseplant craze going full blast, that’s not helpful if you want to know what you have, discuss it with other gardeners, and provide proper care. I agree with this, but I’d also insist on botanical names out of my preference for accuracy and for not being talked down to by growers and retailers.

QR codes didn’t make it, but the thinking behind them was well meant. They were about providing complete information, which is something we always need. We may not always want it, but that’s another story.

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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 regular 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


  1. Good luck with “correct” plant names. Its taxonomic name will be revised next season (thanks to a taxonomic revision by a splitter).

  2. Is your office plant a dieffenbachia or a dumb cane? The one in your photo is neither–it’s an Aglaonema, or Chinese evergreen. 🙂

    • I also have a Chinese Evergreen and I really think this is a different plant. The dieffenbachia can have many variations.

  3. Same on the Chinese evergreens. Tons of cultivars and interesting variegations. Tough plants and great for indoors.
    Have a great day!

  4. I agree that qr codes have not taken off as expected, however I do still see them and appreciate them. When I am in a garden center and I am interested in a plant i have no knowledge of, I google for info. When the qr codes are available however, i find they are useful, as they generally take you to a site with specific plant info. The website and info help me to make an educated decision on whether or not to purchase the plant. Most importantly for me, I find real images or the flowers produced by the plant, not the doctored colored images posted by the vendor.

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