Identifying Your Mystery Plants

Inevitably, we encounter plants without knowing what they are, i.e., we don’t know their names. That’s hardly surprising because there are so many different plants. When botanists count the flowering plants, called angiosperms, which we appreciate in our gardens, they identify nearly 300,000 species in over 13,000 genera. That total does not include the growing numbers of cultivars of the more popular species.

Many gardeners, much of the time, simply don’t care to know the name of a plant that they enjoy. It’s enough to have the plant produce colorful blossoms and attractive foliage and to refer to it by the color of its flowers, its location in the garden, or a characteristic of its form or foliage.

When a better name is needed, gardeners often find the genus to be sufficient: it’s a rose or an iris or a daffodil.

Still, we sometimes want to identify the plant by its botanical name (genus + species) and its cultivar name. That level of detail has benefits:

  • allows the gardener to distinguish between a given plant and other similar plants, e.g., referring to a particular rose within a collection of roses by name, instead of pointing;
  • supports research into the plant’s origin, cultivation needs, and propagation methods, in the interest of growing the plant successfully, or shopping for similar plants;
  • satisfies the need that some gardeners experience to have a name for each plant.

Finding a plant’s correct name can be challenging. It helps if the gardener enjoys The Search.

Let’s consider broad categories of searches for a plant’s name: the gardener knows (or might know) the plant’s genus, the gardener knows (or might know) the plant’s common name; and the gardener has no information at all about the plant.

Given the plant’s genus, finding the species and ideally the cultivar might begin with a plant reference book, such as Sunset’s “Western Garden Book,” or the American Horticultural Society’s “A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.” Another approach involves searching the Internet. Wikipedia, which holds information on nearly all plant genera, is a valuable resource for such searches. Browse to Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org), enter the genus and scroll to the list of species. Whether using a book or the Internet, identifying the species of a given plant requires reviewing the options and deciding which aligns with the features of the plant in question.

Another option is the National Gardening Association’s searchable Plant Database (garden.org/plants/, which includes some 728,000 plants.

When the gardener knows the plant’s common name, some reference books will include a list of common names with links to the botanical names. Still, searching the Internet for the common name is the easier approach.

For the more popular garden plants, search the Internet for the respective society and look on its website for a searchable list of cultivars. Good examples include the American Rose Society, the American Iris Society, and the Pacific Bulb Society. There are many other such societies. Visit the website of the American Horticultural Society and search for “societies by plant type.”

On occasion, the gardener will have absolutely no information about a particular plant and wants to identify it.

Fierce Lancewood

That situation arose recently when a reader sent a photo of a strange-looking plant. In such cases, I draw upon the collective knowledge of participants in the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum, which is a free resource.

To my delight, the Forum participants soon identified the plant as Pseudopanax ferox (Fierce Lancewood, or Toothed Lancewood), which is native to New Zealand. I soon learned about the plant by searching for it on the Internet.

With a little research, you can identify the mystery plants in your garden.

Survey of Garden Customers

Your local garden center has a continuing interest in what its customers seek and will seek in the future. That information has much to do with the success of the business.

One important source of trends among gardening customers is the National Gardening Survey, a private company that conducts annual surveys of consumers of garden-related products. The NGS has recently released its 2015 survey.

The full survey is quite pricey, but in today’s column we summarize the available highlights with an emphasis on the gardening customer’s perspective.

The bottom line of the survey findings has been summed up as “a bold, exciting future for garden retail!!” That’s good news for your local garden center because it reflects growing interest among gardeners.

The NGS estimates that 75% of all U.S. households are undertaking some level of gardening. That works out to 90 million households, an increase of six million households over 2014.

When analyzed by age, 5 million of the additional gardening households had participants in the 18–to–34-year-old range, the group often called the “Millennials.” Meanwhile, the number of households with participants in the 55+-year-old range reportedly remained steady. (This leaves an increase of 1 million households presumably with ages 35–to–54.)

So, gardening customers got a little younger, on average.

The average annual expenditure on gardening rose from $317 to $401 per household, a stunning 26% increase year–to–year, and about 10% over the average of the previous five years. This combination of more customers and more spending makes the lawn and garden industry optimistic.

The overall receipts of this industry total $36 billion, which is notably about three times the Hollywood box office receipts. Still, household spending for gardening products and services, when adjusted for inflation, remains well below the peak reached in 2003.

The NGS’s findings don’t reveal why the rate of spending for garden items lags below the historical peaks, but one plausible interpretation is that gardeners are getting smarter by using online information.

The NGS has concluded that garden customers are discovering the information they want through online research and then seeking validation at their local garden centers. This pattern contrasts with past practices in which customers asked garden center staff for basic information.

The NGS recommends that garden center should focus more as project success centers, rather than hand-holding discovery centers.

As your local garden center modifies its services in this way, you must find answers to your gardening questions on your own, using online resources, books and magazines, and fellow gardeners. Local garden societies can be important sources of basic gardening information.

This column often refers to online sources of gardening information, and will continue to include helpful web addresses. The success of any search for information begins with a thoughtful formulation of the question. Books have been written on strategies for asking the right question, which is central to critical thinking, but acquiring basic factual information about gardening need not be complicated. Many questions for such information can begin with “how” or “what,“ e.g., “how do I plant a tomato?” or “what is a good way to plant a tomato?”

When seeking such information online, many search engines can respond to natural language queries, but they are really oriented to keywords. You will get pretty much the same response by entering “tomato plant.”

The staff at your local garden center surely will continue to respond to your factual questions, but the Internet will be more readily available and will offer a deeper trove of information.

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