Our dining room table is covered with seed catalogs this week. It may be cold in the mornings, but its time to get in our seed orders! My husband and I have particular varieties we like so we need to get our orders in early before they run out. Rob specializes in corn: Augusta, Sweet Rhythm, and Seneca Dancer are some of his favorite varieties. I like to grow flowers and every year I hunt for Cosmos Diablo the black-eyed Susan called Rudbeckia Indian Summer and any variety of sweet pea that claims a strong fragrance such as Old Spice. These plant names can be confusing but if you understand how they work you can learn a lot about the plant youre considering and be sure your getting the particular plant you want. With vegetables, knowing the common name and the variety is enough to get started. Brandywine tomato, Buttercrunch lettuce and Elite zucchini are some common examples. With flowers it gets a little more confusing. There are two very different groups of Cosmos, for example, and the only way I can be sure Im getting what I want is to look at the Latin name. The first name is the genus and its always capitalized, the second name is the species and its always in lower case. Both should be either in italics or underlined to indicate their ranking as genus and species. After that comes the cultivar, if there is one, and that is always in single quotes and capitalized. The Cosmos Diablo I like so much is actually Cosmos sulphureus Diablo. It has one-inch ruffled orangey-red flowers and grows about two feet tall. This is very different from the more common Cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus Sensation, which grows almost four feet tall with three-inch white, pink or lavender flowers. Cultivars
If the genus and species are too complicated for you, then focus on the variety, the word in single quotes. Books and catalogs and even I often interchange the terms cultivar and variety. For the average gardener this is fine. Technically, a variety is a characteristic that happened naturally to plant while a cultivar is a characteristic that was brought about by a breeder, selectively choosing plants with particular characteristics. Plant collectors and breeders have different ways of indicating which is which, but for our purposes today and for the average hobby gardener, well use the terms interchangeably and put the name in single quotes. Why bother?
I realize that last paragraph sounded pretty complicated and that was a simplified version! Readers may be wondering, why bother with all this? Does it really make a difference? Yes, it really is worth considering what varieties you are growing! There have been many improvements made to edible and ornamental plants through careful selection and breeding. Powdery mildew has been a big problem in recent years on cucumbers so look for disease resistant varieties such as Marketmore 76 to reduce your headaches this year. Other qualities to look for in varieties include the colors of the flowers, size of the flowers, days to ripening of different vegetables, size of plant (compact, normal or climbing) and other qualities particular to that plant. Some flowers including sweet peas and flowering tobacco have lost their wonderful scent through these crosses so if thats important to you look for variety descriptions that indicate a strong aroma. In these examples I look for sweet pea Old Spice and flowering tobacco (often called by its Latin name Nicotiana) Heaven Scent or the very tall and fragrant Only the Lonely. Experiment
Along with your old favorites, dont forget to try something new each year, too. Take notes on how each variety performed in your garden in order to learn and remember which ones are the best suited to your growing conditions. What grows best for your friend downstate may or may not be the best choice for you. The only way to know for sure it to try them out for a couple of years and see which you like the best.