What’s the difference between a species and a hybrid?

And all the other plant naming questions that you were too afraid to ask
Plant Doctor Christopher Satch

So, you’ve been around plants for a bit, and you start to see some weird names for plants.  Alocasia cuprea, Philodendron Prince of orange, Clowesia Rebecca Northen ‘Mikkabi’.  What does it all mean, and how do you keep track of it all?  Fear not, reader!  I’ll give you the lowdown on how to know what’s a cultivar, hybrid, common name, and species, and how to properly write them out.

What’s a common name?

Common names are marketing inventions that help us quickly refer to plants we commonly work with.  They’re easy to remember, but have a lot of pitfalls:

  • Common names can refer to more than one plant
  • Common names change from region to region
  • Common names make it easy to market some plants
  • There is no central governing authority to regulate common names
  • And more…

Names like Peace Lily, Sunflower, and Maidenhair fern are all examples of common names.  I’m sure you more than likely know exactly know which plants I am talking about.  Now, consider: Money Tree.  I’m sure at least 3 plants come up (Pachira aquatica, Carssula ovata, Pilea pepperomioides, etc.).  Coupled with the fact that when I translate Peace Lily or Money Tree, it means nothing in another language, really makes things complicated.  Can we just have one name that refers to exactly one plant?!  We already do.  They’re the Latin or Scientific names, and they refer to species.

How do I know if it’s a species?

Species names are always in Latin, which used to be the universal lingua franca of Europe, as well as the scholarly language that all the European nations could agree upon. So, for more than 1,000 years, all of the “book-learning” was done in another language.  Kids these days have it SO EASY!

A species occurs in nature, and is (generally) uncorrupted by man.  When scientists go out into wild lands looking for new species, they must document them with a pressed sample and submit it to a herbarium, as well as publish a scientific paper defining THIS unique pressed organism as a species.  It must be genetically different enough (as well as morphologically different enough) to be accepted.  When it is, we all welcome it into the Latin lexicon of the millions of known organisms that inhabit our Earth.  SO, scientists spend a LOT of time classifying and naming these damn plants, so you’d better use the Latin name WHENEVER applicable!

Species names are always italicized or underlined in font.  The genus is capitalized, and the specific epithet is not.  For example, Helianthus annuum is the properly-written name for the common sunflower.  You may also abbreviate the name, if you have already spelled it out in the text beforehand, like H. annuum.  You can tell the GOOD garden centers from the bad ones because the good ones will use the Latin names in the tags rather than (God help me) “ASSORTED SUCCULENT”.

The benefits of scientific names are:

  • Universally-understood
  • One name, one plant
  • Implies relatedness

So, we’ve gotten the first 2 bullet points, but to address the third, know that plants are classified according to relatedness, and named accordingly.  Therefore, Philodendron rugosum and Philodendron gloriosum can be considered closely-related, and daresay… both Philodendrons. In the case of Philodendrons, the scientific and the common name is the same, so here’s where the technicality comes in – IF you are speaking about Philodendron the GENUS, then you need to italicize:

Philodendron contains many tropical vines.

If you are speaking about Philodendrons in general, no special formatting is needed.  So, now that you know species, let’s get into hybrids!

What’s a hybrid?

Hybrids are crosses of compatible plants.  There are 3 main types, which get further subdivided:

  • INTRAspecific hybrids – are progeny of members or variants of the same species
  • INTERspecific hybrids – are progeny of members of different species of the same genus (for example, Philodendron Florida[1] is a cross of P. squamiferum x P. quercifolium)
  • Intrageneric hybrids – are progeny of members of different genera (for example, Laelia alaorii x Cattleya nobilior is an intergeneric hybrid.  These are uncommon except really in orchids)

ALL hybrid genera are still italicized, but the species name is either replaced by the hybrid name or the cultivar name capitalized, in normal font.  In the old days, we used to write the x too, but for whatever reason, everyone (incorrectly) drops the x.  Hell, even I drop the x sometimes.  From the example above, Philodendron x Florida is the correct way to write that.  Same thing goes for Philodendron x Prince of Orange.  (The x, denoting a cross is not italicized ever).

Occasionally, if you buy something from a REAL breeder (like Fred Clarke of Sunset Valley Orchids) and not a hipster plant shop (you know the kind…), You’ll occasionally see breeder’s notation.  These are all scientifically correct ways of writing the same thing, just more specific and revealing about the parentage.

For example, Philodendron squamiferum x quercifolium is also correct, and is the equivalent, but expanded version of Philodendron x Florida.  The beauty of the expanded version is that the female parent is first, and the male parent is second.  This is a big deal in breeding, for inheritance reasons… but this article isn’t about that!

What is a cultivar?

Cultivars are exactly that – cultivated varieties of plants that breed true to their trait(s). There can be cultivars of hybrids or species.  There is variance among members of a species, and some traits, we may select for and cultivate.  For example, Acer rubrum ‘Dark Leaves’ is a cultivar of red maple that has exceptionally dark leaves.  It’s still the species; just the darkest-leaved member that breeds true (breed true meaning that it produces offspring that look exactly like itself).  Cultivars are always written with SINGLE quotes, and all parts of the name are capitalized.  Another example: Clowesia Rebecca Northen ‘Mikkabi’ is a Clowesia hybrid that’s named Rebecca Northen, and this selected cultivar is named ‘Mikkabi’.  (I think for this hybrid, the ‘Mikkabi’ variant had the most frills compared to all the other Rebecca Northen crosses).

So, there you have it.  Now that you know the truth, you can go to your favorite plant shop, and be horrified at how wrong all the tags are.  You’re welcome!

Have any questions about a plant?  You should message me @botanictonic on instagram or botanictonic@gmail.com !  If you like what I am writing, please leave me a tip on Venmo!  @C-Sat (if it asks for a number, it’s 9898)

[1] Vol 69 (1956): Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society


Some Notes on Philodendron Hybrids


Erdman West,

H. N. Miller

Published June 13, 1957

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