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Become a Smarter Gardener in 2019: How to Identify a Cultivar

Photo: Julie Weisenhorn, UMN Extension
Many of us have a beautiful plant in our garden (or our neighbor’s garden) that we just can’t identify. We know what the plant is, a daylily for example, but not which daylily. Your friends keep asking, “What is that plant?”

So how do you figure out what to ask for at the nursery?

Cultivars are plants of a shared genus (e.g. oaks or dahlias, etc.) that are bred by humans for a specific reason like larger flowers or a nice smell.

Even for a professional, identifying a cultivar can be a challenge. After all, there can be thousands of cultivars for one group of plants!

Here are several resources to help you identify a cultivar.

Check out what books are available

Photo: Timber Press
Some plant researchers have written books about the species they study that are very useful for identifying cultivars. 

Some examples include, Hollies: The Genus Ilex by Fred C. Galle and The New Encyclopedia of Daylilies by John P. Peat and Ted L. Petit. These books usually have color photographs which will be helpful!

Visit a public garden or its website

Public gardens are home to plenty of cultivars and seeing them in person may help you figure out what cultivar you have. Bringing a picture to compare with the physical plant is often helpful. 

If you cannot visit a garden, most public gardens have photos and descriptions of their plants on their website. Look for a tab called plant collections or something similar. 

Find the official cultivar registry

Hobby groups, like the American Daylily Society and the American Rose Society are in charge of registering new cultivars and manage the official list of cultivars for that species. Chances are that your plant will be one of the listed ones.

Call your local hobby society

Plant people love to talk about plants! Contacting your local chapter of a plant society will put you in touch with experts who are happy to help. 

It is possible that even after using the above resources, you will not be able to identify the cultivar you have. Cultivars lose popularity just like fashions and you may have an older cultivar that is now rare, or you may have a plant that is not a registered cultivar. If this happens, all you can do is enjoy the plant you have. 

More Resources

Minnesota Plant Societies: 

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