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Tips for reading those plant labels

Learn a little Latin, it won't hurt (much)

Rudbeckia is in a dazzling partnership here with Touch of Style verbena. When plant shopping, Redbeckia is the flower’s scientific name. (Norman Winter/MCT)
Rudbeckia is in a dazzling partnership here with Touch of Style verbena. When plant shopping, Redbeckia is the flower’s scientific name. (Norman Winter/MCT)

Reading plant labels while surfing the garden center can be an eye-straining adventure, but with a little practice you’ll soon learn what’s important and how to pick it out at a glance.

Let’s use the black-eyed Susan flower as an example. At the top of the tag, you’ll find the common name: black-eyed Susan.

Then the scientific name. Black-eyed Susan = Rudbeckia hirta. The first word, known as the genus, is a noun; and the second word, the species, is a descriptive adjective. Rudbeckia is the genus (named after a person in this instance), and hirta (Latin for hairy) is the species. The Redbeckia hirta has hairy stems and leaves.

In some cases, there will be an additional third part of the name, indicating the specific cultivar. Rudbeckia hirta Cherokee Sunset, refers to a unique cultivated variety of black-eyed Susan. Enough with names.

Though you may be tempted to skip the language lesson, scientific names can actually be helpful and assure you that you are getting the specific plant you want. Learn a little Latin, it won’t hurt (much).

The label also will tell you if the plant is a perennial or an annual. (Less commonly, a biennial, but we’ll skip those in the interest of brevity). Perennials come back up every growing season, think of them as permanent garden residents. Perennial = permanent.

Annuals complete their entire life cycle, from seed to flower to seed, in one growing season. They must be newly planted every year ... in annual installments — get it? There are exceptions to every rule but go with the flow, this will cover you in most instances.

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Perennial plant labels also will indicate a hardiness zone. Most of Iowa is in USDA Zone 5, so that’s the number to look for. If the label says Zone 6, it’s generally too cold for it here.

Light requirements vary from full sun to full shade. Plants requiring full sun like at least six hours of direct sun per day, and some veggies do even better with eight to 10. Part sun means three to six hours.

Part shade still means three to six hours of sun per day, but only morning sun and some shade from the hot afternoon rays. Full shade indicates a need for less than three hours of direct sun per day, and again, only morning sun.

Pay particular attention to light requirements when choosing plants for hanging baskets or containers. All the plants should have similar light requirements to thrive in harmony.

Size and spacing are pretty self-explanatory. Just know that size refers to maximum at maturity. Size is sometimes listed as height and width. Some, but not all labels also will include watering requirements.

l For gardening questions, call the Linn County Extension Master Gardener Hortline at (319) 447-0647.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.