What Is That Plant?
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R. Wayne Mezitt
OK, I’ll admit it – I’m a fanatic about labeling plants in a garden!
Landscape plants can look so different at various times during the year, particularly those herb
aceous perennials, whose tops die to the ground in winter. Especially with all the new cultivars that are appearing on the market, it’s virtually impossible for most of us to accurately identify many plants unless they are in flower or labeled. Even in my own garden I often can’t recall from season to season some of the details I need to know about certain plants until I read the nametag.
Whenever I visit Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Elm Bank or the Arnold Arboretum I am impressed with the tagging systems they use to identify their plants. Their labels tell me more than I often need to know – common and scientific names (correctly spelled!), source of the plant, growth conditions it prefers, winter hardiness, when it was planted, awards, etc. Many private gardeners clearly label their plants too, although usually with less detail. Some gardens also provide a map showing locations, and each plant may be identified with a number that refers to the map. In all these situations it’s easy to identify plant combinations that appeal to me that I can use in my own garden and those we design for our clients.
The type of identification to use varies with the characteristics of the plant. A shrub or tree will generally have a metal or plastic or wood label attached with a wire to a branch or stem at eye level, or nearer the ground. Labels for herbaceous perennials or larger plants are best placed in the ground near the plant on a stake or post. The gardens that are most appealing to me are labeled discretely so the visual effect is pleasing, and the labels don’t overwhelm the beauty of the plants.
In my own landscape I prefer a 3.5” x 1” aluminum tag I attach loosely to my shrubs and trees with a coated wire that won’t damage the stem. I write (actually, imprint) on both sides of my labels and try to include the Latin name, the correct spelling of the cultivar, my source and the date of planting. My herbaceous plants have an anodized aluminum label on a stiff wire I insert in the ground in front of the plant. The neutral color blends easily and looks natural. I also try to bury the label that came with the plant near the roots at the base so I have “backup” information to retrieve should the main tag be lost.
In the past I have been disappointed when I try to skimp by relying upon less expensive paper/plastic labels. I’ve found that the ink from most so-called “permanent” makers fades after a season or two, and non-metal tags are not sufficiently tough to stand up to New England’s weather challenges. Once the original name tag is lost, it can be exceedingly difficult to accurately determine a plant’s true identity.
Personal experience has taught me that taking a few minutes to properly label each plant as I install it pays important rewards. Because I expect my information to be available for many years, I also make a practice of checking and maintaining my labels periodically to assure they don’t fade, girdle the branch, fall off, get moved, or otherwise deteriorate. Accurate labeling makes it easier for me to observe information about plant performance from year to year. Not only do I find this personally rewarding, it also becomes a critical factor in making credible recommendations about proven plants suitable for our clients’ landscapes.
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