Tag Archives: identification

100th post: Finding a plant’s name

Seeing that the 100th post is kind of a monumental occasion, I decided I should probably have a good one.  I’m not sure what constitutes a good post in your mind, but I consulted with my wife and we agreed that this topic is one where I have focused a lot of attention.  Also, this topic shows how far I’ve come since I began writing this blog.

Some people I encounter assume I know everything about plants, simply because I know their names.  While this is a huge exaggeration, knowing the names of plants seems like a good place to start – at least for finding more information about a particular plant.  And the names themselves can often tell you some interesting things about the plants, but that’s for another post.

As someone who desires to know the botanical name (genus and species) of every plant I have, I must admit it is sometimes hard to do this.  Many times plants that I buy are without a label or contain a label with only a common name.  Worse yet, sometimes the plant contains a generic label that says “Tropical Plant,” “Foliage Plant” or “Annual.”  These kinds of labels have some degree of helpfulness.  They can help you get a feel for where to grow the plant or how long you can expect it to stick around, but they’re not so helpful when it comes to honoring the plant by calling it by name. 🙂  When I purchase a plant with one of these labels, it is usually at a large store like Lowe’s or Wal-Mart, where the employees have little or no knowledge of the plants.  It’s unlikely they will be able to identify the plant for me.

To be honest, I don’t even bother asking employees the names of plants most of the time.  I actually enjoy the hunt.  It’s an educational experience to track down the botanical name of a new plant.

Other times, I bring plants home that were not purchased, but collected.  In these cases, I have very little information to go on, other than the location where the plant was collected and the usual physical description.

The Hunt

My methodology for discovering a plant name depends on the plant.  If the plant is what I would consider an average Joe plant that is widely grown (and I am just unfamiliar with it), I will usually try to find the common name first and then look up the correct botanical name with wikipedia or Dave’s Garden.

At this time let me be clear that neither of these two sources are guaranteed to have correct information.  Both contain errors – some that are easy to see and others that are very well disguised.  However, I think most of the time there are enough eyes looking at these two highly-trafficked websites that the information is pretty good.  On davesgarden, I check to see that the images associated with this botanical name match the plant that I have on hand.  Usually all of the images on one page will match, but I have seen some cases where completely different plants were posted to the same page – ech!

There are a number of other websites with more accurate information.  Sometimes I consult those websites, but usually only when I think the plant is commonly misidentified.  I have a short list of these websites on the Suggested Links page under the Identification section.

After gathering the genus and species name from one or both of these sites, I usually do a quick Google image search for that particular pair of names.  This is just for good measure.  It also provides me with an idea of other plants that are commonly mistaken with this plant and plants that are closely related (in the same genus).  By this point, I am usually pretty satisfied that I have captured the correct botanical name for my average Joe plant.

The Hunt becomes difficult

For more unusual plants, I am a little more careful.  In most cases these plants do not have common names.  In many cases I am able to guess a genus or a family, based on the physical characteristics and other plants that I have which are similar.  If I don’t have any similar plants and can’t recall any names of similar plants I have seen before, one method is to post pictures to a variety of different websites.  One such site is the “Name that Plant” forum on gardenweb.  That forum is specifically dedicated to identifying plants by physical descriptions and pictures.  Another potential forum is a family, type or region specific forum (i.e., Cacti Forum, Tropical Plant Forum, Houseplant Forum, Tree Forum, Oklahoma Gardening Forum).  Many times the members who frequent these forums are very helpful, very friendly and you can learn a lot from their responses.  Often it is a group effort to narrow the search to the specific genus and species.

I have used the “Name that Plant” forum dozens of times, but I really like to try to struggle with a plant’s identification for several days before I break down and ask for help.  That’s just because I like to do it myself and I have fun with the process.  If you’re not so inclined, that’s fine.  The forum is there specifically for this purpose.

If you’re a person who likes the challenge of identifying plants, you might find yourself becoming one of the regulars who helps others identify their plants on the forum.  I have helped just a couple of people identify a plant when I have logged on to submit one of my own mystery plants.

I can now say with confidence that I know the botanical names (genus and species) of nearly every plant I own.  There might be a plant here or there that I will forget, but most of them come to me quickly.  It’s just like learning the names of people – except I have more trouble with that.  I imagine if I went home and entered people’s names in a database after I had met them and categorized the database by families, I wouldn’t have so much trouble.  I’m sure those steps are helping me learn the names of my plants.  But “Epipremnum pinnatum” is so much more fun to learn and recite than “John Brown,” don’t you think?


Asparagus Ferns

Today is my mom’s birthday!  I attribute most of my admiration for plants to my mom.  I grew up surrounded by plants and started helping her with watering and plant maintenance at an early age.  I am celebrating her birthday on my blog by profiling one of her favorite plants – the Asparagus Fern.  This is a very common house plant/outdoor summer plant in our area of the country.

You might wonder why this plant is given the common name “Asparagus Fern.”  These plants (which are actually not ferns) belong to the Asparagus genus.  The genus also includes Asparagus officinalis, the plant which produces the edible aspargus spears that we all know and love (or tolerate, in my case).  So if you have an Asparagus Fern, believe it or not, your plant is very closely related to the edible asparagus!  You might be able to tell a resemblance in the new fronds of foliage that emerge.  They look very similar to the edible aspargus.

New Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus) frond - photo courtesy flickr user yauda
New frond from an Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) - photo courtesy flickr user yauda

There are over 300 distinct species in the Asparagus genus, two of which are commonly kept as ornamental plants: A. densiflorus (synonym A. sprengeri) and A. plumosus (synonym A. setaceus).  Both of these species use the common name “Asparagus Fern.”  A. plumosus is sometimes also labelled “Plumosa Fern” or “Florist’s Fern.”  The fronds of this plant are airy and soft.  They are sometimes used in floral arrangements.

Plumosa fern (Asparagus ) - photo courtesy flickr user vanillalotus
Plumosa fern (Asparagus setaceus) - photo courtesy flickr user vanillalotus

The other species (A. densiflorus) has two common varieties that can be found as an ornamental plant.  This is the species that my mom grows so well.  To make the naming conventions even a little more complicated, the Asparagus densiflorus plant is sometimes given the common name “Sprenger’s Asparagus.”  According to wikipedia, Carl Ludwig Sprenger made these ferns popular in Europe.  So to reward him, his name has been applied as the botanical species name of the “Plumosa Fern” as as one of the common names for a different species A. densiflorus.

Aspargus densiflorus
Aspargus densiflorus - photo courtesy flickr user Mrs Ramsay

As I said, there are two common varieties of A. densiflorus.  One of these is sometimes labelled A. densiflorus ‘Meyersii’ and sometimes given the common name “Foxtail Asparagus Fern.”  This plant has a much more manicured look, with foliage densely confined around each branch, almost forming perfect cones.  If you didn’t know any better, you might think this plant had been pruned with some intricate little hedge trimmer.   The other variety is the true species, and is more of a free spirit, with branches that contain less form.  Even though the name Asparagus sprengeri was in honor of a person, this plant seems deserving of the name “sprengeri,” because it looks “springy” as opposed to the ‘Meyersii’ variety.

Asparagus densiflorus Meyersii
Foxtail Asparagus Fern - Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii' - photo courtesy flickr user pandorea

I have an Asparagus densiflorus and A. densiflorus ‘Meyersii’ potted together.  Sadly, my Asparagus plumosus is no longer with us.  I would have shared photos of my ferns, but they become rather dormant over the winter and are just now being to “leaf out” again.  Of course, they are more like needles than leaves.  Botanically speaking, they are flattened stems that are capable of photosynthesis and they are called phylloclades.

Asparagus densiflorus in bloom
Asparagus densiflorus in bloom - photo courtesy flickr user Distraction Limited
Asparagus densiflorus berries
Asparagus densiflorus berries - photo courtesy flickr user Mr. Greenjeans

These plants have small white flowers, followed by green berries which become red with time.  I have a couple of Asparagus ferns on my front porch, and occasionally new plants will come up from seed that was spread to neighboring pots.  Underground, a small bulb-like feature grows.  It reminds me a bit of the bulbs of Pregnant Onion.

Asparagus densiflorus seedling
Asparagus densiflorus seedling - photo courtesy flickr user joeysplanting

Happy Birthday, Mom!  May all your fern fronds be green! 🙂


Book Review: Toki No Hana

Doesn’t that title just draw you in?  No?

Well, maybe that explains why everyone was rolling their eyes when I opened this Christmas present from my parents (which I had requested, by the way).  The Japanese book “Toki No Hana” is a 45 page monograph (book with one subject) with 480 photographs of plants from the genus Asarum.

Toki No Hana cover
Toki No Hana cover

Although I have only grown one species from this genus, I greatly admire the genus and I have plans to start a small collection.  In the United States, Asarums are grown most often as groundcovers in woodland shade gardens in the north.  There are a couple of species native to North America.  You might run across their mottled foliage in the woods of the northern states and in Canada.

In southeast Asia, it’s a completely different matter.  For thousands of years, the Japanese have cultivated different varieties for their variable foliage and subtle, but beautiful blooms.  The foliage can be anywhere from solid green to almost completely silver.  The blooms vary from yellow with red centers to solid purple.  They are treasured plants, grown in small pots where they can show off their blooms most easily.  You see, the inflorescence of Asarums is at the base of them stem, literally lying on the surface of the soil (or pebbles in the pictures below).  One of the most recognized blooms looks like a little panda bear, being white and a deep purple that looks black.

Asarum pictures from Toki No Hana
Asarum pictures from Toki No Hana

The book was compiled by the Japanese Asarum Preservation Society and is a collection of pictures of all of the different varieties that have been cultivated there.  It is fascinating to see the variation.  Some are stunning and others are… well, not so pretty.  After all of the pictures are several pages of notes on the identification and origin of the different species and cultivars presented in the pictures.  Of course, the notes are in Japanese:

Notes on Asarum species - did you get all that?
Notes on Asarum species - did you get all that?

Thankfully, my parents purchased this book from a US source (Asiatica Nursery) that had grabbed a bunch of these books in Japan and translated the notes to English.

Ah, much better.  Asarum notes translated from Japanese to English by Barry Yinger.
Ah, much better. Asarum notes translated from Japanese to English by Barry Yinger.

This Spring I will be checking the Atwoods store here in town where I have purchased Asarum splendens in the past.  I will probably get three or four plants to start with.  Since Asarums are actually a cool climate plant and will do very well in dimly lit, cool rooms, my plan is to start my collection in earnest this Fall by purchasing several more varieties from Asiatica Nursery, an online retailer that specializes in Asarums.  They usually have about 70 different varieties available.  I already have a short list of the plants I plan to purchase:

  • Asarum kiusianum var. tubulosum – solid white flowers, low clumping leaves
  • Asarum maximum Green panda wild ginger – one of the most famous species
  • Asarum splendens Chinese wild ginger – the variety I will buy at Atwood’s in town
  • Asarum subglobosum – pink/beige flowers, green leaves have center white stripe
  • Asarum takaoi ‘Ginba’ – solid silver leaves
  • Asarum wulingense
  • It will be great fun to watch my plants mature into specimens as beautiful as those pictured in Toki No Hana and to see my plants produce some of these amazing inflorescences.

    Stay tuned for pictures of my plants as I collect them!


    Plant photo directory

    I have already written about the MyFolia website, which is a wonderful plant networking community.  The single most enjoyable aspect of MyFolia was one that I initially underestimated – the photos of my plantings.

    When I first started building my catalog on MyFolia, I found that most of the plants I have in my collection were not in the database of MyFolia.  Since the MyFolia database of plants is created by the users, I attribute the missing plants to the group of people who have used MyFolia so far.  I would gander that many of them are traditional “gardeners,” which (to me) means that they grow vegetables and flowers and things in their yards.  I consider myself more of a “plant enthusiast” and “plant collector.”  For me, the gardening side is a small fraction of my plant hobby.  Most of my plants reside in pots and most must live half the year indoors.  Another portion of my plants reside in my aquariums.  So far not a single one of my aquatic plants was already in the MyFolia database.

    So from the get-go, I was having to add each one of my plants to the database, as well as to my list of plantings.  I give great credit to the developers of MyFolia, because this was an easy and quick task.  But as I was focused on adding the correct genus and species names for all of my 160+ plants, I neglected to invest any time in uploading pictures.  Besides, MyFolia requires you to upload pictures to a photo-sharing community (Flickr, PicasaWeb or a couple of other options).  Since I didn’t already have an account, I put that task on the back burner.

    It was just a couple of days later before I decided I should probably open a Flickr account so that I could post some of my plant pictures to MyFolia.  Boy, am I glad I did.  My “Plantings” (what MyFolia calls your list of plants) is now a wonderful photo directory of the plant list that I also have listed here on The Variegated Thumb.  The MyFolia developers were pretty smart in using an existing photo sharing community, because they can just show a snapshot from Flickr, without having to store the pictures on their own servers.  The only downside is that to see the full picture, you must click the link and go to the Flickr website.

    On LibraryThing (a website for book lovers – very similar to MyFolia), you can look at your “Library” (book collection) in list form or cover form.  I found that it was really fun to look at all the books I have read in cover form.  I thought this would also be a really cool feature for my plant collection, to see the little uploaded snapshots of my “plantings” (analogous to my “library” on LibraryThing).  I have written the developers to suggest this feature for MyFolia, so we’ll see what happens.

    So, the cool thing is that I have been thinking about taking a picture of every plant in my collection and building a photo album of my plants, to accompany the My Plant List page on this blog.  But the problem with that method is updating the photo album would be a hassle.  Using MyFolia will be much easier to add a new plant and a new picture, so the work is done for me already.  Check out my plantings on MyFolia here.

    My Plantings on MyFolia
    My Plantings on MyFolia

    Also, MyFolia has a Wish List, which is just like my “Plant Wants” page.  So I have started transferring my Plant Wants list to MyFolia, as well.


    My Dracaena Forest

    I purchased my first Dracaena (Dracaena marginata) a couple of years ago.  It was one of those small pots at Wal-Mart with 3 or 4 shoots in it.  I think I divided them up in as many other pots and let them grow with some other plants.

    About a year later my mother-in-law was so kind as to give me her mature (about 4 foot tall) half-dead Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii.’  There wasn’t really anything wrong with it except that it had been sitting in a sunny window and not watered for a month or two.  After a little bit of care and some shadier conditions it popped out rather nicely and even grew two new shoots from the soil.  I was pretty excited about that, because I know that you can “fill out” a Dracaena by chopping it’s head off and letting multiple shoots grow from the top of your cut.  But I hadn’t done any unnecessary chopping and new plants were growing.  I decided to add my Dracaena marginatas from their various locales to my newly acquired, no longer half-dead Dracaena.  This pot was starting to look lush and full.

    Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’ shoots
    Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’ shoots (foreground) and Dracaena marginata (left rear)
    My Dracaena collection
    My Dracaena collection - posed in the front yard for lighting purposes.

    It wasn’t long before I saw another color variety of the Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’ – the lemon lime variety, which has yellow where the other has white.  Of course, I bought the pot of small starts and added them to the potted Dracaena forest, as well.

    close-up of Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’ leaf
    close-up of Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’ leaf
    close-up of Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii Lemon Lime’ leaf
    close-up of Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii Lemon Lime’ leaf

    And soon I found what looked like another color variation of my original Dracaena marginata.  Whereas the D. marginata has an overall dark green and red coloration, this variety was lighter, with some pink and white.  Now that I have researched the plant a little, I think it is actually Cordyline australis ‘Pink Stripe.’  This really surprises me, because it looks just like my Dracaena marginata, except for color.  What surprises me even more is that the genera Dracaena and Cordyline are not even in the same botanical family.  How can this be!?!  I hope the botanical gods can forgive me for tainting my “Dracaena Forest” with a Cordyline…  The good news is that Dracaena australis is a synonym for Cordyline australis, which basically means that the Cordyline which I mistook for a Dracaena is commonly mistaken as such.  Dracaena australis is not a valid botanical name, but at least others have seen the same likeness and note it’s odd botanical placement in the Cordyline genus.  Not all flora and fauna fall into the neat little categories that mankind tries to use for them.

    [Update:  Mr Subjunctive assures me this new plant is also a Dracaena – not a Cordyline – just as I had suspected.  The plant is probably Dracaena marginata ‘Bicolor.’  I shall have to change my plant listing.]

    Dracaena marginata
    Dracaena marginata
    Cordyline australis Pink Stripe, which looks like a Dracaena to me.
    Cordyline australis 'Pink Stripe', which looks like a Dracaena to me. Another Dracaena marginata variety - possibly D. marginata 'Bicolor'

    Just a week ago I came upon another variety, Dracaena reflexa ‘Anita,’ which looks just like the two above, except that it is solid green.  The plant was 4 separate stalks about 3 feet tall in a large pot and selling for just $3.  Of course I bought it and plan to move the shortest of the 4 plants into my Dracaeana forest planting.

    Dracaena reflexa Anita
    Dracaena reflexa 'Anita'

    I would like to add maybe one more color variety to this somewhat crowded pot, but I haven’t found the right one yet.  I was thinking there was a dark red solid Dracaena available, but I haven’t found one since I took on this project.  It could be that it was a mislabeled Cordyline that I saw.  I’ll have to keep my eyes open.