Decipher Plant Descriptions

Confused on what those fuzzy words mean? Learn how to decipher plant descriptions.

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Shopping for plants by mail can be a confusing process, thanks to creative catalog writing.

"The new and pervasive lexicon of plant descriptions is full of traps and potential pitfalls for casual and serious gardeners alike, especially if the plant being described is unfamiliar," says Paul James. The master gardener helps us decipher the true meanings behind gardening's latest lingo:

Attracts butterflies: Many plants attract butterflies, but what's misleading about this description is that most of these plants likely attract bees as well. These plants may not be the best choice for high-traffic areas such as the patio, pool area or children's sandbox.

Beautiful foliage: This deceiving description may imply that because the flowers are so pathetic, the foliage appears striking in comparison. "But that's OK with me," says James, "since I often prefer foliage to flowers, especially when you use foliage to create color."

Delicate flowers: Plants with this label may feature flowers so tiny that a magnifying glass is necessary to see them.

Drought tolerant: This could mean that, unless you live in the desert, the plant will rot in the ground, says James. During the first year of growth, all plants need plenty of water, including many of the "drought-tolerant" varieties. Water new plants routinely.

Edible flowers: Consider this description as a warning, and plant edible flowers with caution. "If the flowers are edible to humans," says James, "it's entirely possible that deer will love them too."

Excellent for cutting: Catalogs may label single flowering plants as excellent for cutting. "Frankly, I think the best cutting flowers are those that bloom in abundance over long periods of time, such as rudbeckia, coreopsis, daylilies and roses to name a few," says James. No matter what your zone or region, there are dozens of colorful and maintenance-free flower choices available that are also perfect for cutting.

Heavy feeder: In some circumstances, this may refer to the amount of fertilizer needed to keep the plant looking healthy. For example, many heavy feeders require fertilizer every week or so to prevent yellow foliage and wimpy flowers. James stays away from heavy feeders. "That's why virtually all the plants I grow, including those in one of my woodland gardens do fine without any fertilizer," James says.

Invasive or vigorous: Make no mistake - "invasive," "vigorous," "re-seeds readily" and "may spread" are key words that should serve as red flags for potential gardening nightmares, from plants that may pop up through a foot of concrete to plants that, try as you may, you'll never get rid of. Even the term ground cover may be a cause for suspicion.

Pest-free: Think of it this way, if bugs don't like the plant, chances are you won't either.

Slow grower: This expression means that you may assume the plant and your newborn child will mature at the same time. If the plant is both a dwarf variety and a slow grower, prepare yourself for a lengthy and gradual growth period. "However, slow growers include some of my favorite plants," James says, "in particular, a number of dwarf conifers and miscellaneous evergreens."

Tender: Any time a plant is referred to as tender, you might want to consider growing it as a houseplant. Try to follow this rule of thumb: if a plant is rated one zone south of your own, it may be considered tender and treated accordingly by either moving it indoors, or providing it with extra protection outdoors such as wrapping the pot in plastic.

Prefers: Try to get more detailed information on the plant's culture requirements. For example, the term "prefers cool weather" may mean that the plant will not grow south of Minneapolis.

Tolerates: Sometimes saying that a plant "tolerates poor soil" means that it will grow anywhere, at any time - almost weedlike. Or, the plant just barely puts up with poor soil. "Maybe it's like saying you tolerate a root canal," James says.

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