Ask Mr Sage: What Kind of Plant Is a Clone?
Dear Mr. Sage,
My friend and I like to garden and discuss it while viewing other people’s gardens during neighborhood walks. Another topic we enjoy pursuing while walking is Interesting words, so we call ourselves the “vocambulators.” The other day, we were pondering some vocabulary about gardening and realized that we don’t clearly understand the terms "clone," "cultivar," and "variety." We’d appreciate your input.
The Garden Vocambulators
Sounds like a pleasant pastime. I imagine that the two of you were the kind of kids in elementary school who never met a vocabulary list they didn’t love and enjoyed picking dandelions on the playing field. There are a lot of curious gardeners and word lovers out there who I’m sure will appreciate your question. So, I’ll do my best to clarify the meanings of and connections between clone, cultivar, and variety.
A clone is an identical copy of a parent plant grown from a stem cutting or another piece of the parent plant’s tissue, such as cells cultured from a piece of root. This is called “vegetative” or "asexual" propagation. Even if the parent plant produces seed (sexual propagation), the odds are low that its seed will grow into plants precisely duplicating its appearance and other traits.
A parent plant might be a relatively pure form of its original species, such as a native plant found growing wild. It might also be a variety or cultivar of the species. It’s also important to mention that a parent plant can be a hybrid. (Hybridization can be a complicated topic, so we won’t go there today!)
A lot of people use the terms variety and cultivar interchangeably. But botanically, they are two different things. Strictly defined, a variety is a naturally occurring subdivision of a species found growing as a population (group). In a more relaxed definition, variety may refer to a single accidental seedling that varies from the original species.
Subdivision refers to a variety’s characteristic of differing from its original species in some notable way. For example, its flower color and foliage may be significantly different or it may be taller, shorter, stronger, or more resistant to a challenge such as cold, heat, wind, drought, damp conditions, or disease.
Whether discovered as a single plant or population, a variety emerges by chance in the wild, in a home garden, or in a plant nursery. People don’t create varieties but often nurture them once discovered.
When professional or amateur horticulturists discover exceptional varieties, they select them for development. Cultivar is a term formed from “cultivate” and “variety.” Development generally involves several rounds of (1) growing the variety, (2) gathering and planting its seed, and (3) observing the progeny in hopes of finding an even better variety to cultivate for introduction to market.
When this process eventually leads to a superior plant that the developer thinks will succeed commercially, it’s time to give the cultivar a botanical name (the part of the scientific epithet surrounded by single quote marks) and begin growing reliably identical copies through cloning.
Some examples of cultivars developed by Flowers by the Sea Farm and Online Nursery are:
- Elk Super Scarlet Rooster Sage (Salvia dichlamys 'Super Elk')
- Himalayan Sage (Salvia aff. hians 'Elk Super Strain')
- Rhythm and Blues Anise-Scented Sage (Salvia BODACIOUS® 'Rhythm and Blues'), and
- Makino (Salvia glabrescens 'Elk Yellow & Purple').
Variety = Clone
To further relax the definition of variety, when we possess a clone of a variety, we generally refer to it as a clone. In this case, variety equals clone.
It seems to me that you two vocambulators may need a long walk to discuss these definitions. If you have more questions, please feel free to contact us again at FBTS.
Thanks for your question,
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