The Difference Between Cultivars and Varieties


The term cultivar can be a bit confusing, in that it can sometimes refer to a hybrid, or a natural mutation. But the way that a cultivar is propagated will determine whether you have a ‘cultivar’ hybrid, or a variety. And we can do this best by reading plant labels directly, as there are some common conventions that are followed.

In laymans terms, starting from the top, we have species….

Simply put, a species is a genetically similar group of plants who can breed with themselves and one another. And the offspring of the parents have the same characteristics of the parents, and are sexually viable themselves.

A naturally occurring variety of Echinacea purpurea that I encountered on a hillside in the rural Midwest. The seed from this flower would likely produce more white Echinacea.

Below species, we have varieties. Varieties are genetically similar to species, and have all the same characteristics. In general though, a variety is a naturally occurring subgroup of a species that shares a distinguishing difference, such as height, color or spread. It is different from the ‘parent’, but naturally occurring and the seed will make more of the same variety.

Definition of a Cultivar

And then we have cultivars. Cultivars are not naturally occurring where they can reproduce on their own. And as a general rule, a cultivar can only exist and be propagated via human intervention.

So, to propagate a cultivar, typically one must make cuttings, grafts, or it can be created by careful & specialized cross pollination of two varieties to produce new seed. But the seed from a cultivar will yield a plant that is very different, most commonly the same as one of the parents.

Also, cultivars are generally made for a very specific purpose, such as obtaining different color or showier flowers, a different height or spread, more disease resistance…etc. Most the time the grower is trying to add new features, change existing ones, or combine desirable characteristics from different plant types.

Just think of all the specialized hybrid tomato seeds you can buy. Many of these have been made by carefully cross pollinating two different types of tomato plants to obtain a new variety, one that shares both desirable characteristics of the parents.

…”cultivars must be propagated vegetatively through cuttings, grafting, and even tissue culture. Propagation by seed usually produces something different than the parent plant.

Cindy Haynes, Horticulture Specialist & Associate Professor, Iowa State University [1]

For instance, if a certain branch on a tree exhibits a unique leaf or growth pattern, that branch can be removed and grafted to produce a tree with those characteristics. Branches from our new ‘grafted’ tree can be grafted further to produce clones, and sold. But the seeds of that grafted tree would likely yield a tree with characteristics that are closer to the straight species, or parent tree of the original.

A very good example of how a cultivar comes to being would be the Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Tuscan Sun’. [2] A breeding program was underway in Rhinelander Wisconsion for Heliopsis helianthoides. A small, compact seedling was discovered in an isolated area, at least 45m from the breeding program. Noted for it’s compactness, it was allowed to grow and was found to be a beautiful Heliopsis, but small and more compact. It is thought that this random, compact seedling came from another hybrid of Heliopsis, and has been vegetatively grown from cuttings ever since. You can buy ‘Tuscan Sun’ in many nurseries, but beware that the seed from this plant will likely yield a Heliopsis helianthoides with different characteristics.

A cultivar of Heliopsis. Note the “double” flowers. Credit – Manu CC BY-SA 2.0

For another example, if one were to take two very different varieties of Coneflower and cross pollinate them, then seed would germinate a new form of Echinacea. However, were you to germinate the seed from our ‘new’ Echinacea, the growth of the seed would revert back to one of the parent plants, not the new variety.

How a variety differs from a cultivar

Unlike a cultivar, a variety is truly a unique form or subclass of the parent species. Thus, it’s seeds would produce a plant that is ‘true to type’, meaning that the seed would grow a plant that has the same characteristics as it’s mother plant. This most often happens through random mutation. In the reference from Cindy Haynes of Iowa Sate University, she gave an excellent example of a white Redbud Tree, cercis canadensis var alba that occurred naturally in nature. The seeds of that tree would produce new trees that would bloom white flowers. This is known as ‘true to type’.

For another example, think of peppers. Jalapenos pepper seeds produce jalapeno plants, and serrano pepper seeds produce serrano plants. But both are the same species, Capsicum annuum. And as both are the same species, one could manually cross pollinate a serrano flower with a jalapeno flower to make a new variety of Capsicum annum. But, the seeds of that pepper would likely revert back to either a jalapeno or serrano.

However, both Jalapeno peppers and Serrano peppers are varieties of the species Capsicum annuum. And their seeds are ‘true to type’, in that they produce plants that have the same traits as their mother plant.

How to tell the difference between a cultivar and variety on a plant label

So if you are at a garden center, what do you do? How can you tell the difference? There are several ways to determine if a plant is a cultivar, variety, or straight species. But first we have to review botanical names.

In botanical naming [3], a species has two names – the genus and then the epitaph. For example, the botanical name for Purple Coneflower is Echinacea purpurea. Echinacea being the genus, and purpurea being the epitaph. A true botanical variety would have the addition of var. to signify that it is a variety after the epitaph, followed by the variety name. So, the Arkansas variety of Purple Coneflower is botanically known as Echinacea purpurea var arkansana.

The important thing to remember about varieties, is that they are naturally occurring and have evolved locally, and reproduced locally in a successful manner. Thus, they are beneficial to their local ecosystem. The seed of Echinacea purpurea var arkansana will produce more of the same plant.

Naming of hybrids and cultivars

Hybrids and cultivars will have different labeling on the plant. First, the “var” will not be there. Instead, you will have single quotation marks and capital lettered names, or even trademark designations. So, in the Heliopsis example discussed previously, it is Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Tuscan Sun’.

Sometimes they make it easy. This tag blatantly says this plant is a Monarda hybrid.

As a general rule, if the plant tag has a non-latin name in single quotes, with capitalized letters, it is a cultivar or hybrid.

Example of plant label info for varieties versus cultivars

Below is the kind of information you should look for on a plant label to determine if it is a cultivar or hybrid or naturally occurring botanical variety. Pay attention to the naming, and if any word in the name is not italicized, then you should assume that it is a cultivar and not a naturally occurring variety. Also, you will generally find cultivars and hybrids with non-italicized words enclosed with single quotation marks.

SpeciesVariety of the straight speciesCultivar / hybrid
Botanical / Scientific NameEchinacea purpurea var arkansanaEchinacea purpurea ‘Sweet Sandia’
Photo

The safest way to ensure you have straight species, and not hybrids

Carefully read the label

A careful examination of a plant label is by far the best way to ensure you are getting a straight species or variety, and not a cultivar. Look for italicized words, and avoid plants with common or special sounding names that are in single quotation marks. Anything with a trademark or patent is also very likely a cultivar.

Avoid big box stores

For avoiding cultivars, hybrids, and Frankenplants….avoid big-box stores. They mainly deal in special cultivars that are mass-cloned. Now, those cultivars do have some benefits in that they are generally easy to grow or disease resistant, but if you are growing natives, you generally don’t need to worry about diseases anyway. And, if you put plants in their preferred growing conditions, they will grow healthy and vigorous.

Shop at smaller nurseries that deal exclusively in natives

This may sound obvious, but if you want to make sure you get the real species you need to either shop at reputable Native Plant nurseries (see our listing / map here). You could also purchase seed and grow them yourself. And finally, you can responsibly forage the seed in the wild (my preferred method).

Conclusion

To summarize, a straight species is just that. A species of plant, it grows all over, and the seed will produce more of the same plant.

A variety is naturally occurring variant of the species. It can be a natural mutation, geographical mutation, or something else. But the main point is, it’s flowers can cross pollinate with the straight species (if necessary), but even if it self-pollinates, the seed offspring will be the same as the mother plant.

A culitvar is a vegetatively created plant by cuttings, grafting, tissue, or special hybrid cross pollination. Which is really a long way to say it isn’t naturally occurring. And, thus, the seed will produce a different plant than the mother.

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References:

[1] – Haynes, Cindy. “Cultivar versus Variety.” Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University extension. Accessed 29JAN2022.

[2] – Zlesak, David C., and Brent J. Hanson. “‘Tuscan Sun’Heliopsis.” HortScience 43.3 (2008): 927-928.

[3] – Article 4″. International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. 2012. 4.1. If a greater number of ranks of taxa is desired, […a]n organism may thus be assigned to taxa of the following ranks (in descending sequence): [… genus, … species, subspecies,] variety (varietas), subvariety (subvarietas), form (forma), and subform (subforma).

[4] – Echinacea purpurea var. arkansana. Integrated Taxonomic Information System – Report. Accessed 29JAN2022

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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