cultivar and variety: was Re: Freesia laxa 'Joan Evans'

Jim McKenney
Thu, 08 Dec 2011 07:12:00 PST
Roger wrote: "
Jim's uses #2, #3, and #4 are misuses of "variety" instead of the correct word, 
"cultivar", a term coined by Liberty Hyde Bailey about a century ago 
specifically to reduce the confusion between naturally occurring botanical 
varieties and forms which have by one means or another arisen in cultivation."

Roger, I don't think cultivar will ever be widely accepted in gardening circles: there are several semantic problems with the word. It's had a century to take, and I can't recall any of my gardening friends using it in conversation. To me it even looks odd in print. 

The problem with that word as I see it is ambiguity. To begin with, is a wild collected freak plant (variegated, witch's broom, aberrant color) a cultivar when it is brought from the wild into cultivation? Your definition seems to limit cultivar status to plants which have arisen in cultivation.

The term cultivar is also completely uncommunicative about another aspect of cultivated plants very important to some of us: is the plant clonal? The term cultivar is used for both seed grown strains and for clonal groups. In many groups of cultivated plants the question answers itself from a knowledge of long practice: tomatoes are almost always grown from seed, tulips are almost always propagated clonally. Yet even the familiar household seed catalogs are apt to offer strawberry cultivars, some of which are clones and some of which can be raised from seed. 

Then there is this: cultivar suggests that the plant in question is a variety of something; but what is the something? I often feel cheated when I see the word cultivar used - it's as if part of the information has been omitted when someone writes "the Freesia cultivar 'Joan Evans' " instead of "the cultivar of Freesia laxa known as 'Joan Evans' ".

And then there is this: as I typed this message, the word cultivar was caught by spell check. I tried it in Word and Word recognizes it. 

To me it's obvious why the word has never caught on. 

It gets better: Roger, you suggested that the word cultivar was introduced to  "specifically to reduce the confusion between naturally occurring botanical varieties and forms which have by one means or another arisen in cultivation."  
Yet throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many taxonomists who should have known better spent time slumming among  horticulturists (didn't Linnaeus specifically warn against this?) and publishing Latin form names in the formal botanical literature for what were, as it turns out, clones. An entity assigned rank varietas (sometimes treated as equivalent to subspecies) cannot be a clone. Clones belong at rank Individuum. One result of this is that names initially published in the formal botanical literature have become cultivar names in current practice. The formal code allows the use of such names as cultivar names if they were published before  January 1, 1959. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin /<> 
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