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Understanding Our Plant Labels

Reading Time 2 minutes and 40 seconds
Date 19 February 2024
What can a plant label tell you?

When you walk around any botanic garden, you’ll probably notice a lot of plant labels. Each label has quite a few different bits of information on it, each of which will tell you different things about the plant.

Name: the Latin or botanical name is usually the most noticeable feature of the label. This always consists of two parts, first the genus (a bit like a person’s surname) and the species name (like someone’s first name). There can be lots of different species within each genus, but they will all be related, and you can usually see lots of similarities between them.

In the top right hand corner of the label is the family name, which is a bigger grouping of genera (one genus, lots of genera). Family names always end in -aceae, and again, you can usually see some similarities within a family.
Some labels will tell you the common name, which are more familiar to lots of people and widely used, particularly for trees. Unfortunately some plants have numerous different common names – for example, sticky willy, cleavers and goosegrass all refer to the same plant – but they will only have one Latin name (Galium aparine)– so our labels will always show the Latin name to reduce any confusion.

Distribution: In the bottom left corner of the label you’ll find the plant’s distribution, or the part of the world where it’s found naturally.

Accession: Finally, in the bottom right corner is the accession number, which for our purposes is the really important bit. Each plant in the collection has a unique number given to it when it arrives, which is stored in a database. This unique number means that we can keep track of every plant, and keep all the relevant information with it – for example, where it came from, who collected it, and where about in the garden it’s growing. The second part of the number refers to the year in which the plant was accessioned. On some of our labels, you’ll see accession numbers which look something like this: 235/0000. These are some of the oldest plants we have and were probably given an accession number some years after they were planted.

A lot of information about our plants can be accessed by visiting our Garden Explorer page. You can use this to see if we are growing a plant you are interested, or to search for more information on a plant you’ve seen during your visit.

Unfortunately many of the labels in the garden are now quite old and have become brittle in the sunlight over the years. Some labels have been lost, or perhaps their names are out of date due to taxonomic revisions. Because the garden collection runs into many thousands of accessions, keeping up with the labeling can be a time consuming and expensive task.

During 2023, the trust was delighted to receive funding support via a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) bursary, and from the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust. This generous funding has allowed us to purchase smart new labels for many of our trees, our woodland garden (including our significant collection of Rhododendron) and the rock garden. The new labels are made from metal and so should be very hard-wearing and long-lasting. The tree labels have also had a fixing upgrade, replacing the old nails with brass screws and new springs. This means that the screw can be loosened as the tree grows and prevent any damage to the tree. The trust would like to sincerely thank the RHS and Stanley Smith (UK) Trust for this support, which has enabled us to make these much-needed improvements!

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