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Information about plant cultivars and varieties


Jump to:-   Cultivar or Variety?  |   What is a Plant Variety ?What is a Plant Cultivar? |    Fruit Cultivars  |  Vegetable Cultivars  |  How are Cultivars named?


When buying most plants or seed, you will be faced with a choice of cultivars – the number of which can vary considerably depending on which crop you wish to grow.


The word cultivar, sometimes abbreviated to cv.,  is made up from the words “cultivated” and  “variety”. It should be noted that in strict botanical terms, the words cultivar and variety do not have the same meaning as explained briefly below.  



What’s the difference between a Plant Cultivar and a Plant Variety?


For most amateur gardeners the difference between a variety and a cultivar is unlikely to have any significant bearing in the growing of crops (unless you want to breed a new cultivar), so in most other parts of this and many other websites and literature,  the words are interchangeable.   However, just for the record below  are brief definitions of both words.


What is a Plant Variety?


Plant varieties are plants which always have certain characteristics including size, colour, flavour etc., but which have occurred naturally – i.e. without the intervention of man.  Sometimes referred to as plant strains,  these plants' characteristics have been "fixed" by nature and can be propagated by seed with the resulting plants coming true to the parent plants with only minor differences if any at all.


What is a Plant Cultivar?


A cultivar is a plant which has been bred by man for desirable characteristics such as size, colour, yield, disease resistance etc., by means of  hybridisation i.e. the crossing of two or more different varieties of plants,  each of which have specific desired qualities.   For example one has a good colour,  a second has a great flavour whilst a third  has a resistance to a particular disease.


Once the desired attributes have been attained - a process which can take years of painstaking cross pollinating to get the right traits - these cultivated varieties must be reproduced (propagated) correctly in order to retain their unique characteristics.


Fruit Cultivars


In the case of fruit, this is always done by vegetative means in the form of cuttings, division, grafts, and budding and the resulting offspring is sometimes referred to as clones. It cannot be done by collecting seed as any resulting seeds from these plants will usually not produce plants with exactly the same characteristics due to cross-pollination with other plants in the surrounding area.




Although fruit cultivars determine aspects such as the colour, size, texture and flavour of the fruit,  when purchasing plants, particularly trees, further consideration should be given to the rootstock onto which the cultivar has been grafted, as this affects the overall size of the tree as well as the suitability of form in which the tree can be grown e.g. fan, espalier or pyramid. For more information about rootstocks click the link. See individual fruit growing pages for specific fruit cultivars.  


Vegetable Cultivars


When it comes to most vegetables, cultivars are achieved through a very precise cross-pollinating procedure consisting of cross-pollinating two different "pure line" varieties. This must be done in a carefully controlled and isolated environment to ensure that only the two chosen varieties can cross-pollinate and is often done by hand. Furthermore, the process must be repeated with the same two original varieties as seed produced from the new (hybridized) cultivar will not come true. For more information about "pure lines" see F1 Hybrids(coming soon).  


The choice of vegetable cultivars is perhaps not as pressing as with choosing fruit cultivars especially as most vegetables are grown as annuals so the wrong choice this year can be rectified next year. However, careful consideration should be given if growing in unusual circumstances such as in containers or, in the case of some root vegetables, in shallow or stony ground where choosing dwarf varieties may be more expedient.


How are cultivars named?


Cultivars are identified by names which are most often everyday words or proper names rather than Latin words. Names of cultivars are registered with and conform to the rules of the ISHS Commission Nomenclature and Cultivar Registration.  


When the full scientific name for a particular plant cultivar is given, the part of the name that indicates the cultivar always comes last, following the family and species,  and is enclosed in single quotation marks. The cultivar part of the names are known as epithets.


So if we take the Rooster potato an example,  the name might be written as  Solanaceae (family) Solanum tuberosum L. (Species)  ‘Rooster’ (epithet) or just Rooster Potatoes.


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