Skip to Main Content

LuEsther T. Mertz Library
Plant & Research Guides

Library Home Plant Help Research Support All Guides

Understanding Plant Labels at the New York Botanical Garden: Home

The New York Botanical Garden has maintained plant records since its founding in 1891. The Plant Records Department keeps records on the Garden’s living plant collections. Originally, specimens were recorded in hand-written accession books. Today, they are stored in the Garden’s plant database using a program called BG-Base. Visitors can search this database online using the NYBG Plant Tracker, allowing visitors to identify plants in the collection and locate them within the garden.

The Plant Records Department also produces plant labels, which visitors will see throughout the Garden. These labels help visitors identify the plants in the collections and play an important role in our mission to educate people about plants.

What Information is Included on a Plant Label?

A typical label includes four to six lines of information, depending on the type of plant and the size of the label:

Photograph of plant label Photograph of plant label

The first line displays the common name (a kind of nickname which may vary from region to region).

The common name is followed by the universally accepted scientific name (also known as the botanical name).

The scientific name is followed by the plant family unless it is a cultivar, in which case the capitalized cultivar name appears next and the name is within single quotationi marks (it is also acceptable to precede cultivar names with the abbreviation cv.; one or the other but not both).

If the plant is a naturally occurring species, the native range appears on the next line. However, if the plant is a cultivar, grex, or man-made hybrid, there is no native range.

Lastly, labels for woody plants (trees and shrubs) also include the accession number (a unique number assigned to that plant by NYBG for record-keeping purposes).

Graphic detailing placement of information on plant label

Special Cases

Plants that are hybrids, subspecies, varieties, or other taxonomic ranks below species may look a little, or even dramatically, different. Hybrids may include the multiplication sign × in the plant name. Subspecies, varieties, and forms are abbreviated “subsp.” or “ssp.”, “var.”, and “f.” [see Glossary]

Orchid labels are frequently complex.  To learn more about to read Orchid labels, please download the PDF linked below.

How are Labels Made?

Plant Labels at the New York Botanical Garden are made in-house by the Plant Records Department.  Plant labels are engraved onto plastic using an Epilog Mini laser engraver. Standard labels are brown plastic with a white under-layer (for white lettering). Label sizes vary, depending on the type/size of plant (3x5” for woody plants, 2x5” for herbaceous plants, smaller labels for pots, troughs, and orchid case).

After labels are engraved they are mounted to aluminum stakes with 3M foam tape and placed in front of the plant, or they are mounted to the tree trunk.

Label text is composed in CorelDraw and in Times New Roman font.

Pronouncing Plant Names

Botanical Latin is primarily a written language. It includes taxon names derived from any language, or even arbitrarily derived, and consequently there is no single consistent pronunciation system. When speakers of different languages use Botanical Latin in speech, they use pronunciations influenced by their own languages. There are at least two pronunciation systems used for Latin by English speakers. All of these systems, however, will inevitably be unsustainable across the spectrum of botanical names.

Pronunciation Resources

Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder has audio files. Click on the symbol to hear a plant name read aloud.

The Botanary is a botanical dictionary from Dave’s Garden. It provides the meaning and derivation of words in plant names and provides a pronunciation guide.

Glossary

Terminology related to taxonomy and nomenclature can be confusing. This is because many glossaries and dictionaries, such as the one in this guide, represent the interpretations and opinions of different taxonomists and nomenclaturists.  In botany, the authoritative definitions of terms related to nomenclature are found in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.  As with any legal code, individuals may interpret and apply the code in different ways.  If the definitions provided here are not satisfactory, look to the code for more detail.  Stern’s dictionary of botanical Latin is also an excellent secondary resource for clearly-written definitions of terms that have more cryptic official definitions.

Accession Number: a unique number assigned to a plant or group of plants in the living collections. This number links to a record in the Garden's plant database (BG-BASE). Different numbering systems have been used but currently the Plant Records department uses sequential numbers followed by the year, in this format: 1/2018, 2/2018, 3/2018 and so on, with 1 representing the first plant added to the collections in the year 2018. The year does not necessarily reflect the age of the plant – only when it was added to the database.

Binomial Nomenclature: a formal system of naming species of all living things, using Botanical Latin and composed of two parts. The first part of the name identifies the genus to which the species belongs; the second part – the specific name or specific epithet – identifies the species within the genus, so the scientific species name requires both Genus and specific epithet. For example, Juglans regia is the English walnut; Juglans nigra, the black walnut. The formal introduction of this system of naming species is credited to Carl Linnaeus, effectively beginning with his work Species Plantarum in 1753. Technically, with botanical names there is a third part to a full scientific name, the authors who published the name (typically used as standardized abbreviations). In the walnut examples here, Linnaeus described both species, so the correct, full scientific names are Juglans regia L. and Juglans nigra L., indicating that Linnaeus was the one to describe the species. Sometimes later botanists will transfer a species into a different genus, in which case the describing author is listed parenthetically followed by the transferring author. For example, even though modern botanists do not accept the following name, Friedrich Georg Christoph Alefeld, a German botanist in the 1800s, proposed transferring the black walnut to a different genus, creating the name Wallia nigra (L.) Alef. (again, not accepted in modern usage).

Botanical Latin: an international language used by botanists around the world for the naming and description of plants. It is a technical language based on New Latin. It is primarily a written language. It includes taxon names derived from any language or even arbitrarily derived and consequently there is no single consistent pronunciation system.

Botanical Name: a formal scientific name conforming to the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN). Uses Botanical Latin and Binomial Nomenclature. Also referred to as the scientific name or Latin name.

Botanical Nomenclature: the formal, scientific naming of plants. It is associated with, but distinct from, taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is concerned with studying organisms (taxa), including grouping and classifying them (the latter also referred to as classification or systematics), which involves a certain amount of subjective opinion; botanical nomenclature then provides names for the results of this process but is scientifically neutral. The starting point for modern botanical nomenclature is Linnaeus' Species Plantarum of 1753. Botanical nomenclature is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN). These rules exist independently of taxonomy, i.e, they provide legalistic semantic guidelines for the process of naming but have nothing to do with the judgment involved in which organisms and groups should be named, nor which rank(s) should be used.

Common Name: (also known as a vernacular name, colloquial name, popular name) is a name that is based on the normal language of everyday life and can vary from place to place. NYBG uses American English common names. Common names are written in lowercase letters unless it includes a proper noun.

Cultigen: a plant that has been deliberately altered or selected by humans. It includes cultivar, the Group (formerly cultivar-group), and the grex.

Cultivar: a grouping of plants selected for desirable characteristics that are maintained during propagation, such as color, size, form, or disease-resistance. Cultivar names conform to the rules of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Most cultivars arise in cultivation, but a few are special selections from the wild.

Family: a taxonomic group containing one or more genera (plural of genus). Plants can be categorized by similar features, including overall appearance, flower shape, and more, to show their relationship to one another. Groups of related populations are called species, related species are called genera, related genera are called families, related families are called orders, etc. Absolute rank is somewhat arbitrary, as these groups are artificial human constructs, created to reflect patterns in nature. Historically, plant families were intended to be morphologically cohesive (like species and genera), but with the advent of modern phylogenetic analyses it is increasingly common for groups to be defined on the basis of genetic (often DNA) data, so that some modern families are not readily identified morphologically. Still, they represent groups of related genera that taxonomists think are worth classifying together, and most families are morphologically diagnosable. Plant family names end with the suffix "-aceae" and they are technically considered to be plural nouns, e.g., 'the Poaceae are..', not 'the Poaceae is...'. Eight family names have alternative names that are also legally accepted, although the use of these alternate names is discouraged by some, i.e., Apiaceae are also called Umbelliferae, Arecaceae = Palmae, Asteraceae = Compositae, Brassicaceae = Cruciferae, Clusiaceae = Guttiferae, Fabaceae = Leguminosae, Lamiaceae = Labiatae, and Poaceae = Graminae.

Form: one of the "secondary" taxonomic ranks, below that of variety, which in turn is below that of species, although nomenclaturally all infraspecific taxa are tied to the species name, not to higher-ranked infraspecific names; forms are indicated by the word “forma” or the abbreviation “f.” in the scientific name and is not italicized. If the abbreviation "f." is used, take care because it can also be short for "filius" (son of) or "filium" (daughter of) which may be found as part of the authorship of a name, e.g., with Anthoxanthum aculeatum (L.) L. f., the "f." does not refer to "forma" but to the fact that Linnaeus described this species (a grass) as belonging to a different genus, then his son later transferred it to the genus Anthoxanthum.

Grex: this term has been coined to expand botanical nomenclature to describe hybrids of orchids, based solely on their parentage. New grex names are established by the Royal Horticultural Society, which receives applications from orchid hybridizers; the group of all progeny derived from the same artificially produced hybrid.

Hybrid: an offspring resulting from cross-breeding, which can occur in nature or in cultivation; the result of combining the qualities of two organisms of different breeds, varieties, species, or genera through sexual reproduction.

Intergeneric Hybrid: hybrid between different genera.

Interspecific Hybrid: hybrid between different species within the same genus.

International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN): the set of rules and recommendations dealing with the formal botanical names that are given to plants, fungi, algae, and a few other groups of organisms, all those "traditionally treated as algae, fungi, or plants."

Native Range: the nativity of a plant refers to the region where it grows naturally, in the wild.

Nothotaxa: hybrids between two or more taxa. For nomenclatural purposes, the hybrid nature of a taxon is indicated by placing the multiplication sign × before the name of an intergeneric hybrid or before the epithet in the name of an interspecific hybrid, or by prefixing the term "notho-" (optionally abbreviated "n-") to the term denoting the rank of the taxon.

Scientific Name: a formal Latinized name used for a substance, medical condition, organism, taxonomic group, etc. With respect to the name of a species, it is always a binomial (see Binomial Nomenclature).

​Subspecies: a grouping within a species, often used to describe geographically or ecologically isolated variants which, typically, intergrade in zones of overlap. Although nomenclaturally a rank above “variety,” both variety and subspecies names are equivalent as infraspecic groupings within a species, i.e., varieties are not nomenclaturally treated as subsets of subspecies. Despite some attempts to maintain these infraspecific ranks as fundamentally different (they are technically, nomenclaturally different ranks/taxa), their actual application and usage is usually rather arbitrary and often redundant, with some arguing for the use of a single infraspecific rank (such people often advocate abandoning the use of forms). Nomenclaturally, subspecies, varieties, and formae are all acceptable ranks, despite taxonomic frustrations with quibbling over their meaning, value, and purpose. The subspecific name is preceded by the abbreviation “subsp.” or “ssp.” in the scientific name and it is not italicized.

Synonym: a scientific name that applies to a taxon that (now) goes by a different scientific name.

Taxa: plural of taxon.

Taxon: a group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms seen by taxonomists to form a unit; population may refer to individual plants making up a species or to groups at any rank (level of a hierarchical classification system), e.g., a species is a taxon, as is a family, order, subgenus, or any other named group.

Taxonomy: the study of taxa, the science of defining and naming groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. It is distinct from nomenclature. Although we use names to communicate about the taxa, the subjective judgment used to determine which similarities (& differences) should be used to define the taxa, is not directly related to the system of rules for naming, i.e., the features used to recognize species, genera, families, etc. are independent of the scientifically neutral names.

Variety: a taxonomic rank below that of species and subspecies but above that of form. Some taxonomic workers consider subspecies and varieties to be comparable ranks philosophically (while others follow different definitions), but according to nomenclatural rules they are treated as different ranks, which, unfortunately, does sometimes lead to rather subjective taxonomic squabbles. Varieties are indicated by the abbreviation “var.” in the scientific name and the abbreviation is not italicized (although the varietal name should be).

 

This guide was written by Kristine Paulus with editorial assistance from Becky Thorp and Leslie Coleman.

Dr. J. Richard Abbott provided editorial assistance for glossary terms.

Tori Lewis designed and created the "How to Read an Orchid Label" guide.

Ask a Plant Expert

Contact Us

with your plant questions by email

plantinfo@nybg.org

Find a Plant at NYBG

Find a Plant at NYBG

Map of NYBG

Recommended Reading - Plant Labels

Contacting the Plant Records Department

Becky Thorp, Senior Plant Recorder

plantrecords@nybg.org

Suggested Websites - Plant Labels