Terminology & Nomenclature

Plant taxonomy attempts to identify and classify every plant in relation to all other plants by close examination of the plant's individual characteristics. However, taxonomy is a science that changes as new technologies allow for the examination of plants at microscopic — even molecular — levels, sometimes resulting in renaming and reclassification. A plant's taxonomy leads to a specific name that is accepted worldwide. Botanical nomenclature is based on a set of rules established by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753 and much of his structure is still in place.

Genus and species

To identify a conifer you start with its genus, sayAbies, for a fir tree. Genera are then further divided into species, for example, alba (for its unusually white wood) which now makes the plant name a binomial, i.e. composed of two words. Abies alba is the binomial for the European silver fir. (Botanical names are in Latin or Greek and always italicized.) Next we come to yet another addition to the plant name, the cultivar, which is always enclosed in single quotation 'marks' but not italicized. Sometime in the 19th century in Germany, an Abies alba spawned a unique columnar-shaped seedling that was shown to be stable (meaning that it maintained its distinctive characteristics through subsequent generations), and given the cultivar name 'Pyramidalis.' All descendants that retained this unique shape over the centuries have been called Abies alba 'Pyramidalis'. When all three levels in the hierarchy are used in the plant's name it is called a trinomial. A common name for this conifer might be pyramidalis European silver fir although using the botanical nomenclature Abies alba 'Pyramidalis' will likely yield more authoritative search results. Depending on their characteristics, some conifers may have nomenclature that also includes not just genus, species and cultivar but a hybrid (x), variety (var.), subspecies (subsp.) or form (f.) (See: Nomenclature Quick Guide.)


Cultivars (an abbreviation of 'cultivated varieties') are what turn a well adjusted gardener into a conifer collector who often becomes afflicted with ACS (Addicted Conifer Syndrome.) Cultivars are freaks of nature whereby a perfectly well formed plant (a binomial) either develops a branch with characteristics unlike that of its parent or the whole plant begins to morph into something different. Sometimes cultivars result from chance seedlings that exhibit different form, texture or color than their parents. If this aberration (when a mutation it is called a "sport" or "witch's broom") is spotted by a knowledgeable plant person who recognizes it for what it is, it is propagated, as was Abies alba 'Pyramidalis'. If the plant continues to hold its uncharacteristic form over time, and through several generations, the owner or propagator of the new plant can give it a name and submit it to a body such as The Royal Horticultural Society (a process that ACS can facilitate). If accepted, there is now a new cultivar which can be patented for 20 years, thereby creating the possibility of revenue for the original propagator or grower, who produces it in quantity for the market. Many ACS members have discovered witch's brooms that are now being sold in specialty nurseries across the country, as well as overseas. The ACS Conifer Database was designed to facilitate searches by knowledgeable conifer enthusiasts but also as an educational tool to help newcomers understand the hierarchy of conifers, so as to better understand the breadth and depth of this horticultural specialty.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about Conifers? Become a member of the American Conifer Society and receive the ConiferQuarterly, with articles written by some of the most respected plantsmen and women in the country. You will also be eligible for discounts from many nurseries and help to promote the development, propagation and conservation of conifers around the world. JOIN HERE!