Struggling with What's What, a 'Weird Plant' Collector's ConundrumBy Geoff Stein (palmbob)
September 6, 2010
See this thumbnail photo here of this hybrid Echeveria? It was identified as Echeveria 'Extreme Ruffles' at a nationally prominent plant show. Only when one tries to find a reference for such a plant on the internet, one comes up with a big zilch (at least I did). I couldn't find it in my book on Echeveria hybrids. So is this a 'true' name for this plant? Or did the shower just make it up? Sounds like a good name... but what is this plant really?
Since I am interested in primarily unusual plants, I am often at odds trying to figure out what is what. This might seem a trivial problem to most readers as there are endless resources for plant identification, from those monster coffee table plant encyclopedias, to books and web sites that specialize in plants, to plant clubs (there is indeed a plant society for just about every single group of plants there is, as there is for just about anything else that exists in the universe), to our trusted arboretums (where, along with plant shows, nurseries and private collections are my main sources of ‘three-dimensional' information) to our own plant identification site on Davesgarden... and last, but not least, just thumbing through the massive plantfiles on Davesgarden (the largest in the world). With most plants, you will eventually get your answer if you look hard enough. Except when it comes to ‘weird' plants. There probably is always someone who will know what is what. The trouble is finding them and getting their attention. And lastly, the reader might just ask... who cares? If you are asking that, there is no way for me to explain why I care. I just do. It's like having a child with no name. I need to have a name, and not just a made up one. I need to know who my plants are... or what they are.
Being a typically shy sort of person, I hate troubling people over and over and over again asking them what is what, and try, most of the time to just find out on my own. I think this stems partly from when I was a child and would ask my father what this or that meant, and always getting the same answer: ‘look it up yourself!' So I do. And often I end up with the wrong answer. Fortunately I am getting very good at getting a clue about when I am off base and when I am not now that I have been in this plant hobby of mine obsessively for over 15 years. Yet still I manage to embarrass myself repeatedly. It really is not all my fault. I never just make something up, but learn from what I see and hear from others. Sadly many many other people spout incorrect information as well, some obviously with no conscious at all. This situation keeps arising for me, perhaps more than for most others, as I like to ‘collect images' of weird plants, identify them accurately, and load them onto this site.
Two aloes above from a source in which some aloes obviously give made up names (Aloe 'Corumba' left and Aloe 'Little Porker' right)
And it arose again, as usual, during my latest photographic frenzy of the Los Angeles intercity cactus and succulent show this last August (a yearly popular event and reportedly the largest show of its kind on earth). Surely such a well attended and supervised showing of some of the most beautiful and amazing cactus and succulent show plants from the area would have some regulations or rules regarding proper identification. Perhaps it does and there is simply no way to enforce such guidelines.
typical problem encountered above where the plant on left was identified with this tag on the right... what is the genus? Well, it turns out with some research (stumbled upon it actually) that the genus is Airampoa and species is picardoi.
The above two plants were difficult ones for me- plant on left was labeled Avernia campanulata, and plant on right Mammillaria haldeana. Avernia does not exist as a genus, and the closest genus name I could come up with was Avonia, which the image did not match. Fortunately I know enough about plants that I suspected this might be a Huernia, which it turns out is probably what the plant is as there is at least a Huernia campanulata. Whether are not that is the correct identification for that plant, though, is unknown (as most Huernias look the same to me and I would need a flower, and then ask and 'expert' somewhere to see if it matched that species). The Mammillaria on the right is still a mystery as I can find nothing close to haldeana. Made up name, or terrible mispelling, or did this person get this cactus already named as this?
At shows like this I see hundreds of excited enthusiasts buzzing about from plant to plant, some ignoring the names of each plant and just enjoying the plants for their amazing beauty and staging, but many looking carefully at the names and writing them down. I photographed nearly all the plants at this last show and with them, their names as displayed on the cards. When I got home I linked up the names with the plants and now I have all the named plants on my computer. Only some names are spelled wrong, some are written so poorly (can't complain too much as my handwriting sucks as well) I cannot possibly figure out what letters are scribbled down, and some names are obviously either made up or so badly misspelled that I cannot figure out what they really should have been. And some are simply wrong. It is not always the shower's fault, either, though I still think a shower does have the responsibility of getting things right and legible. Most of these plant owners got their plants from someone else, who often got them from another party and so on. After these old plants exchange hands two to three times, who knows what happened to the tags, or if they were recorded properly etc. And those that grew their own plants from seed are at the mercy of the seed distributers, who are in turn at the mercy of the seed collectors it the wild... and who knows if those people really know what they are doing. As a result, many plants in such an internationally recognized show like the Los Angeles intercity show are dubiously or incorrectly identified. This leaves people like me wondering what is what.
Here are some Aloes that I can't seem to find 'real' names for: Aloe 'Purple Haze Improved' (right) and Aloe 'Dragon's Blood' (middle). These were the names given these wonderful plants at the show, but I could find no corraborating sources that made me think these names weren't just made up.
though it is likely related to Aloe 'Spikey' (a real plant), this X Gasteraloe 'Spikey Jr' is a name I cannot find to be 'real' (left); Gasteria 'brevifolia' is how the plant on the right was labeled, but I cannot find any references that say that species exists. Obviously the plant exists, but what is it really?
This beautiful (and ribbon-winning) Agave (left) was labeled as Agave filifera 'Compacta', a name that does not appear to exist anywhere I can find (made up?); right photo is of a beautiful Copiapoa cactus (also a blue-ribbon winner) labeled as Copiapoa collumnar (no such species exists), but at least did figure this one out- it is Copiapoa cinerea var. columna-alba. Obviously having misidentified plants does not phase the judges any.
These two plants were labeled as Baylesiana lophophora (top) and Bannsia lophophora (bottom) by two different entrants in the show. Neither genus is spelled correctly- the proper genus is Baynesia. Sadly the show officials frown upon visitors scratching out names on the show-plant id tags and rewriting them, or perhaps I would have done that. Frankly I think most really don't care what the spellings are, or if even the names are right or not. It's all about the plant, which I understand... sort of. But I sure hope other visitors don't take this misinformation and spread it about.
Dyckia 'Bill Paylon' (left) and Dyckia 'Tibor' (right) are both incredibly beautiful specimens. The Dyckia 'Bill Paylon' even won a top award. Unfortunately I cannot find a reference for either name. Perhaps I am just not looking hard enough. This grower obviously knows and loves his plants so you would think he or she would know their real names. Perhaps he or she is a hybridizer and is creating these plants and the names just have not been made official yet. Still... I can't add these to any plant data base unless I know that for sure.
The above plant (left) was labeled as Euphorbia ankarnesis. It is actually Euphorbia neohumbertii. Who's fault is this- the entrant? Or was it labeled as such when they bought it? The plant on the right was labeled as Frailea gigantica, which is not a real name as far as I can tell. Though there are similar questionable plants on the internet with this same name. If one has a beautiful plant without a true name, how does one show it? Perhaps this is the best they can do, but there should at least be some notation about the questionable identification, just to keep others from learning this name and passing it on to others.
And this situation is no different for arboretums or nurseries, both which are usually rife with suspect and completely misidentified plants. One would think that arboretums, with plant experts on their staff, would oversee the correct identification of all the collection, but this is obviously not the case. Some are worse than others of course, but I have yet to visit an arboretum that did not have its share of errors. And for someone with my lack of professional training in plant taxonomy to be able to notice these errors means there are many more I missed. Of course, plants are always having their names changed, and many plants just haven't been officially named yet... still, all these errors and omissions leaves me wondering what is what. And nurseries are far worse than the professionally maintained gardens. Even private collections can be full of incorrectly labeled plants, depending upon the age and seriousness of the collector.
This is one of the first images I uploaded on this website many years ago. It was labeled (and still is today) by this repuatable botanical garden as Cereus horribarbus. Some local Davesgarden 'experts' immediately pointed out there was no such plant, and in my disbelief I discovered they were correct. With some research they told me this plants was a Cereus hildmannianus ssp. uruguayanus 'Monstrose'... yikes. No wonder the garden 'made up' a new name for it... too hard to write all that on a single label I suspected. I also wondered why on earth these others cared what the real name was. After all, it was gorgeous old specimen, and it deserved a place in the Davesgarden Plantfiles. But under the proper name I was told repeatedly. Finally, after making my 'nth' embarrassing mistake like this I started to understand. Not only that one cannot trust what is identified in botanical gardens, no matter how highly reputable they are, but why it was important to get it right when one was adding 'facts' to a data file that the entire world was then using as a source of information. Since then I have been much more careful about what I add to the plantfiles (still I made dozens of mistakes a years, but fortunately there always seems to be someone who catches them).
Some botanical gardens are great for people like me, with nearly every plant labeled (like the one on the left), while others have displays (right) where nothing is labeled and so there is less opportunity to learn what is what.
Two different nurseries- the one on the left has nearly all plants labeled (many many incorrectly) while one on right has almost no plants labeled... which is better or worse, no information or misinformation?
Some nurseries have excellent track records as far as correctly identifying their plants (left) and best of all are society sales where finding a misidentified plant is actually quite rare (right)
So when someone like me comes along, looking and ‘learning' all the names of the plants I see and photograph, and then later uploads them onto Davesgarden or another plant website for all the world to see, misinformation, as well as information, spreads like a virus throughout the internet. Categorizing and passing on photographic biologic 'information' is very educational not only for someone like myself but also for the thousands of viewers of on line plant catelogues (like our own Plantfiles). For many of these ‘weird' plants, there simply are very few (and in some cases, none at all) visual references. Without us collectors and photographers of unusual plants, many of these plants would still be relatively unknown. Finding out what is what is so much easier today than it was just ten to fifteen years ago, I feel lucky to be alive at this time. But the ‘system' is far from perfect when misinformation as well is correct information is collected and spread about the internet. In the end, figuring out what is what is not always straightforward, and there is endless confusion and complication in this photographic world of weird plants.
So we often do a disservice when we incorrectly identity plants and add them to a reputable web site like this one, and all the world can see and learn the wrong things. Fortunately we have a lot of our own expert members on Davesgarden who struggle endlessly to keep people like me in line and correct our mistakes. Without the true experts in the world, the various on-line plant files would simply be a collection of pretty plants, many of whose identification would be always in question. I estimate that I have over 1000 incorrectly identified plants on my computer and am always trying to update their true identities in an effort to prevent myself from goofing up and spreading this misidentification into the unsuspecting plant world. On the one hand, the incorrectly identified plants that I have photos of are not likely to be that problematic for the plant world at large as 99% of them hold no interest to 99.99% of the plant people in the world. And of the 0.01% of those that do care, a high percentage will know if the photos are correctly labeled or not, or they wouldn't be interested in looking at them in the first place. Still, I really dislike adding misinformation to the world's photographic database. That is one of the main reasons am constantly struggling to know what is what.
Private garden viewing is often a great way of learning about new plants, as the owners often really know their plants. This is not always the case, as with the garden on the left in which many of the plant's names are not known by the owner (this collector loves the plants, but knowing what is what is not a priority). While on the garden on the right owned by a true expert in 'weird plants' has not a single incorrectly identified plant in it. Those are the types of gardens where one can really learn what is what with confidence.
So what can one do? With ‘weird' plants, it is not always that clear. After many years of dealing with this question, I have managed to save a list of plant web sites that are useful and, for the most part, free of misidentified photographs of plants. Unlike this web site (Davesgarden), these sites are usually limited to a small group of plants, and run and checked by those people who ‘are in the know' (experts), or at least monitored by members and guests who eventually notice errors and help pick them out. For all its limitations, however, I must say that the members and staff of Davesgarden do an excellent, if not unending, job of sorting out what is what. Still, there are plants so rare or already so thoroughly misidentified on the internet that there will always be questions and errors that cannot be avoided. I ask all you readers to be careful about identifying your own photographed plants, but also to question constantly what you see on this or any website, as that is the only way all of us will have any chance at really finding out for sure what is what.
Here is a link to another gardener's frustration with plant identification: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/608/
The following are some of the reputable web sites I use to help me figure out what is what in the ‘weird' plant category, and perhaps some will be of help to you, too, to learn what is what.