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Understanding Gardening Terms

Maybe you are mulling over your seed choices for 2021 in your favorite gardening catalogs, or perhaps you’ve wondered about some of the gardening terms bandied about in horticultural conversations. Do you understand all the terms? Recently, Dr. Rosie Lerner, Purdue consumer horticulture specialist (now retired), wrote an article about some of these gardening terms. I’ll borrow some of hers, throw in a few extra to boot, and add some editorial comments for good measure.

Annual – Plant that completes its life cycle from seed germination to seed production in one year - 12 months or less. (Annuals can be either summer annuals, completing their life cycle in the typical spring through fall growing season; or they can be winter annuals, which sprout in the fall, spend the winter in a vegetative state, and complete their life cycle by late spring. Many early-spring flowering weeds in crop fields and in landscapes are winter annuals).

Biennial – Plant that completes its life cycle over two growing seasons; usually produces only vegetation its first season, then flowers and fruits the second season, and then dies. (Examples include raspberries, wild carrot/Queen Anne’s Lace, poison hemlock and garlic mustard).

Bulb – Underground plant structure made up of modified stem and leaves (fleshy scales) for storing carbohydrates.

Bud – Undeveloped shoot with leaves (vegetative) or flowers (floral).

Conifer – Plant whose fruiting structure is a cone.

Corm – A bulb-like underground plant structure made up of a solid modified stem (without fleshy scales) for storing carbohydrates. (Examples of plants with corms are gladiolus and crocus).

Cultivar – Cultivated variety; chosen for a feature(s) that varies from its species.

Deadheading – The practice of removing flowers or flower heads as they begin to fade. (This is done to improve appearance, prolong bloom and prevent fruit from forming).

Deciduous – Plant that loses all of its leaves annually.

Dicot/Dicotyledon – A plant with two cotyledons, or seed leaves. (Examples include green beans, many broadleaf weeds, and most trees).

Dormant – Reduced state of physiological activity. (Usually, this is winter. Some of our lawns go dormant in hot summer months as a defense mechanism against stressful heat.)

Evergreen – Plant that retains at least some of its foliage throughout the year. (Some evergreens are needle evergreens, like pine, spruce and fir; other evergreens are broadleaf evergreens, like rhododendron and holly).

Genus (plural: genera) – A group of related species. A group of related genera make up a plant family.

Herbaceous – Plant that dies back to the ground at the end of the growing season (can be annual or perennial).

Horticulture – Art and science of growing ornamental plants, vegetables and fruits.

Hybrid – Result from the interbreeding of two distinct species, cultivars or varieties.

Invasive – Growing aggressively and outcompeting other plants in the same area; difficult to control.

Invasive Species – A non-native species whose aggressive character does, or is likely to cause harm to the environment, economy, or human health.

Monocot/Monocotyledon – A plant that has one cotyledon, or seed leaf. (Examples include corn, grasses, and sedges).

Mulch – Cover placed on top of soil and/or around growing plants to suppress weed growth, conserve soil moisture, and/or modify temperature.

Native plant – Plant species indigenous to a specific geographic area and, thus, usually best adapted to those local conditions.

Perennial – Plant that lives for more than two growing seasons; can have multiple seed stages.

Photosynthesis – Process by which plants convert light energy, carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates.

Plant Propagation – Increase in the number of plants, using seed, stem, leaf, root or other plant tissue.

Scientific name – The two-word Latin-based plant name used by botanists and gardeners, based on an internationally accepted system of nomenclature. (Expressed as “Genus species.” For example, Acer rubrum is red maple; Acer is the Genus [maples] and rubrum is the species [red]).

Sedge – A grass-like plant with a triangular stem. (However, it is not a grass).

Species (plural: species) – A basic unit of plant classification. (For example, among oaks, different species are red oak and white oak).

Woody Plant – Plant whose stems persist from year to year, adding layers of cells each season. (These are trees and shrubs).

Find Lerner’s original article at:

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