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Is That its Variety, Cultivar or Species?

After 20 years and some college classes more years ago than I really want to admit to, I’ve learned a number of the scientific names of the genus and species of the more commonly used bonsai plants.  However, when I’m writing an article I always have to stop and think, “Is that a variety name or a cultivar?”  Genus are usually big groups with similar foliage like “Juniperus” or “Acer” (junipers and maples).  But what is the variety?  I read that Juniperus Procumbens is closely related to J. chinensis and is sometimes treated as a variety of it, J. chinensis var. procumbens

So what then is a J. procumbens ‘Nana’? ‘Nana’ is a cultivar. Cultivars are groups of cultivated plants, whose origin or selection is due primarily to mankind.  Latin plant names follow the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants.  This combines the Botanical Code and the Cultivated Plant Code to make sure that no matter where you live or what language you speak, that the plant is the plant for agricultural, forestry or horticultural purposes. 

The genus, species and subspecies or variety name are always underlined or italicized.  Hyybrid names are not italicized or underlined and may be proceeded by an “x” meaning that it’s a cross of two parent plants.  “Subspecies” are plants that describe a grouping within a species that developed due to geographic isolation.  A “variety” consists of plants within a “species” with   recognized characteristics.  These terms should not be italicized. 

Plant “cultivars” have clearly distinct characteristics.  Plants may be clones, grafts or selected seeds that reproduce reliably.  There is admitted confusion between the terms “variety” and “cultivar” to the point that a code was adopted in 2004 to clarify that the cultivar name is not a substitute for the accepted botanical name in Latin form and begins with a capital letter and is within single ‘quotation’ marks.  Cultivar names are not common descriptive words such as “Large” or “Varigated”; however, they may be a color like ‘ Indigo’. 

Wow, after boiling down the rules to four paragraphs, I know that I’ve messed up these rules in the past.  And I commonly violated the rule that common names are never capitalized; unless they are the first work in a sentence or are a proper name, like Japanese maple.  So, it is Juniperus chinensis ver. procumbens ‘Nana’; though some would argue it is J. procumbens ‘Nana’.  By the way J. Procumbens ‘Nana’ are an isolated subspecies of J. chinensis that grew in southern Japan and the southwestern coast of Korea and so shouldn’t technically be called Chinese junipers because they were not from China.  And that in Japan they call Japanese maples, mountain maples, but we both call them Acer palmatum.


 By Ken Schultz