December 10, 2012

A Private Pet Peeve: Unlabeled Plants

Plant marker at Pinecrest Gardens
One of my biggest irritations in going to some public gardens or to someone's orchid or bromeliad collection is the lack of plant labels. There has been a brewing debate for years in public gardens whether to label or not label plants. The sentiment for and against the visibility of plant signs is an equal argument. In private collections I feel there should be no argument at all: label the plants because in 20 or 30 years you may not remember the details of the plant. If you give the plant to someone else or divide the plant for distribution, the new owner should have a name from which he can get more information. There are numerous ways to label plants, ranging from utilitarian to beautiful, inexpensive to pricey, simple to ornate. Unquestionably, there is a method for your needs and budget.

soft aluminum plant tags,
written with a ball-point pen

I have posited this argument at speeches in local plant societies, and have heard that labels are little use to a private grower because he can remember the names of his plants. I should ask that same person if he remembers the source, cultivar, and repotting schedule of the plant, as well all the propagations he may have made to give to friends. Multiply those data points by the number of plants in the collection, and the resulting amount of data becomes quite a burden for a memory. In the case of seedlings or tissue-cultured plants, it is impossible to discern the names of plants when they are very small. This is especially true with hybrids, where all data are important. 

orchid community pot,
requires a label !
courtesy of
In a public garden, the debate over the aesthetics of plant labeling is won over by the idea of educating the public about which plant is which. In the case of Pinecrest Gardens and its position between 2 other world-class botanical gardens, we felt we should step up into the world of public garden plant labels. Both Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and the Montgomery Botanical Center use metal labels of various constructions, with Fairchild using some highly decorative interpretive signs as well. In visiting other public gardens, the plant signage may be very visible and informative, or it may be just a small metal tag with an accession number on it. In any scenario, the educated and interested consumer can get more information about almost any plant in a labeled collection, private or otherwise. 

a well-detailed plant label,
courtesy of the Arnold Arboretum
 In most cases in a public garden, there is someone who will be readily interested to get you the information about a plant, and may be able to arrange for propagation material from that plant if it's available and easy to ship to you. One of the primary functions in almost any public garden is to educate people about the garden and its plants. In a private collection, the owner may not be so interested to give out information as in a public garden, but most growers I know have an interest to talk about their plants, their history, and their potentials and problems. 

In your own home plant collection, I suggest a simple and effective system, tried and true for the last 50 years or more. I tried a dozen "permanent" markers, and almost every kind of plant label material. I still work with an ordinary # 2 pencil and a white styrene-plastic label. When written with firm pressure on a plastic label, the graphite from the pencil will remain for decades, especially in the depression left by the pencil tip. If you press the label into the soil or medium, the label will not degrade in sunlight. I've had plant labels last over 30 years using this method. 

polystyrene plant label
                                                       Whether you have a few dozen plants in your own collection, own a country estate with a formal garden, or work in a public garden, labeling is an important part of growing plants. I used to trust my memory with all things botanical, but with a 14 acre botanical garden and thousands of plants in hundreds of species, I rely on labels more and more. 
In a public garden setting, plant labels can be an integrated part of the garden experience, with the knowledge of the plant now coupled with the beauty of its place in a garden. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

a permanent, hard aluminum plant
marker for a public garden or private estate

The not-so-secret tool for writing
long-duration labels



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