Useful Terms for Gardeners



HERBS DE PROVENCE: This spice blend varies by region and even household.  Adjust this basic recipe to your taste. Mix 3 tablespoons each dried lavender flowers, dried oregano or marjoram, dried thyme, dried summer or winter savory and 1 teaspoon each rosemary leaves and basil leaves and a pinch of dried sage. Mix and store in an airtight jar out of light. Best used within a year.

The seedlings (or progeny) that come from two different species in the same genus. Take Grosso Lavender. for instance, it is one of a group of lavenders that  come from a cross pollination of Lavandula angustifolia, English Lavender and Lavandula spica, Spike Lavender. Hybrids can be man-made or naturally occurring.
HEIRLOOM: These plants have been grown from year to year either by saving the seed or by cuttings. If they are a seeded variety, they are referred to as open-pollinated.
These plants provide seed that is true to the original plant. New open-pollinated plants are introduced every year by plant breeders.

SPORT:  A stem, or, more correctly, a bud of an all green plant that goes awry and produces a variegated branch or stem. These mutations are often taken, rooted, and given a new name. These plants can only be propagated by cuttings, because their seeds, if they were any good, would produce the green parent. Often these sport plants revert back to the green plant from which they came. Golden Lemon Thyme and Silver Lemon Thyme are two good examples of Thyme sports. Because there is less chlorophyll in a variegated plant part than in a green one (only green parts of plants can make food), they often cannot compete with green stems that emerge. Thus, a sport plant will often be overcome by green shoots and in a very short period of time the green may be all that is left. That is why we no longer sell either of these Thyme sports.  

HETEROZYGOUS: Having such a mixture of heritable factors in a plant's chromosomes that they show great variation of type when grown from a seed. One very good reason we do most of our plants from cuttings.

VEGETATIVE REPRODUCTION: Propagation of plants from parts other than seeds. We produce almost 70 percent of our varieties from a stem cutting or a root division. Often seeds cannot be used because a plant may be sterile or they may not produce a plant true to the original variety. 

INFLORESCENCE: The flowering structure of the plant. On the Mexican Bush Sage we would describe it as a purple velvet delight.

DESICCATION: Drying out. A term often used for winter killing due to a deficit of moisture both in the soil and in the air. Even dormant plants need moisture and air in the soil.

SPORE: The resting stage of a fungus capable of propagation. Fall is a great time to rid your yard of spores. One of the most important aspects of organic gardening is cleanliness. All leaves and debris from the spring and summer should be cleaned up and properly composted.

INFUSION: Usually a medicinal term, it can also be used in cooking. Bring the liquid in your recipe almost to a boil, and let the herbs steep for 20 minutes or until flavor is what you want. Strain the herbs out and you have an herbal infusion. You can do this with minty herbs for deserts like ice cream or brownies or with broths for soups and sauces.


SANDY SOIL: When moist, sandy soil will not stick together. It is a myth that sandy soil is good soil and that sand is a good amendment for potting soil. The reason is that the spaces or pores between the grains of sand are large. This means the water leaches out easily and the soil dries out fast. Without proper water retaining capacity, there is not much ability for the soil to hang on to nutrients. Sandy soils usually require irrigation and lots of fertilizer. Adding compost is a good way to amend all soils.

LOAMY SOIL: When moist, this soil type forms a loose clump that easily breaks apart. This is the ideal soil texture because it drains well while providing nutrient and water for the plant.

CLAY SOIL: When moist, this soil type can be formed into solid shapes. Soil made mostly of clay tends to be heavy and hold too much moisture for most plants to breath.

NUTRIENTS: Elements available through soil, air and water which the plant utilizes in growth. Preferably these nutrients come from Organic Matter.

ORGANIC MATTER is defined as plant and animal residues and remains.

The third of the four distinctive live stages of a butterfly. This is one of the most fascinating stages and one of the easiest to miss. Often the chrysalis is a dull brown or green color to blend in with its surrounding. This is the stage that turns the caterpillar into a butterfly. 

PROBOSCIS: The tongue of an insect or, in this case, a butterfly. Some butterflies have tongues longer than they are. They need them for that long drink of water hiding under the rocks.

CALYX: All the sepals of the flower.

In the picture above the calyx are the darker purple parts near the base of the flower. Those light green or gray parts at the bottom of the calyx are the Bracts. And, the flower is called the Corolla.

PEDUNCLE: The stalk that holds the inflorescence (the flower head). It starts at the base of the flowering stem and stops at the beginning of the flower head. In Lavender it is what makes a long flower wand or a short one. 

COOL-SEASON PLANTS: One of the environmental factors that affect plants is the temperature. Cool-season plants do best under 70 degrees. The best example of this in the Herb world is Cilantro. A cool weather annual that flowers when the temperatures climb, Cilantro unfortunately is never ready when the tomatoes are.
WARM-SEASON PLANTS: This is where the tomatoes fall. These plants like it above 70 degrees. Fortunately, this is where Basil's preferences lie. And, nothing goes together like Basil and Homegrown Tomatoes.

JUVENILE, TRANSITION AND PRODUCTIVE: These are the three stages of development in all plants. For Basil lovers, the juvenile is the most productive stage. This is the phase where the plant is growing nice fat leaves. When the plant gets to the stage where it is saving energy for flower or fruit production, this is called a transition stage. Once Basil enters this phase, leaf growth slows. By the next stage, the productive stage, the basil is not being productive for us, but is saving itself by making flowers and ultimately seeds. It is not true, that pinching the flowers out of Basils will extend their leaf making days. For once an annual plant enters the transition phase, the messages in the cells of the plant to make flowers cannot be reversed. This is why we suggest successive plantings of basil throughout the season.

ENFLEURAGE: A method of extraction where freshly picked flowers are carefully laid out on glass frames which have been coated with a layer of odorless fat and are replaced at regular intervals until the fat is saturated with the flowers essence. This is the only means of extraction for some flowers, like Jasmine. This definition is from the absolutely incredible volume, The Book of Perfume. Read how Estee Lauder was the first to bring perfume to America only 50 years ago. Of course, it all started with plants. Read our complete review here. Talk about scratch and sniff; you'd swear you smell the roses on the pages of this book.

TORPID: Something that is motionless and dull. Hummingbirds can become torpid on unusually cold nights. This allows them to lower their temperatures and slow their metabolic rates. Indeed, long ago hummers were thought dead when they were only torpid.  If you want to learn more about the incredible world of the Hummingbird, check out this timeless book Hummingbirds: Their Life and Behavior.

ZONES AND HARDINESS: By looking at the United States Department of Agriculture's Zone Maps you can get a general feel for how cold your area is. By knowing either what minimum temperature a plant dies at or what zone it dies in we determine the hardiness of the plant. Sometimes well meaning folks use the term hardiness loosely, like it is hardy in the shade or it is hardy in the summer. They really mean it can take those conditions.  Zones are only general guidelines; we grow quite a few plants in our microclimate (little pockets of warmer or colder than your stated zone weather) that aren't suppose to do well here and they grow fine.

Don't know which Zone you are in?
Check out the zone map.

BERGAMOT: Our mint list includes Lemon Bergamot and Orange Bergamot, and, yet neither is really a Bergamot. Bergamot has come to mean citrus like after the true source of Bergamot oil the tree Citrus aurantium bergmania commonly called the Bergamot Orange. Bee Balms, or Monardas, are also called Bergamots for the same citrus essence found in their oils. It is the Orange Bergamot tree that gives Earl Grey Tea that special tang. Make a similar intoxicating brew by adding a bit of Orange Mint to your tea.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: Probably the most important chemical reaction in the world. Using the carbon dioxide we breathe out and water, plants make their food and our oxygen. Only plants containing the green material chlorophyll can carry on photosynthesis. That is why variegated plants are often slower growing or less vigorous than their all green counterparts. The white or gold parts of the variegated leaf make less contribution to the health and growth of the plant.

TOMENTOSE: Densely Woolly with matted hairs. (Sounds a lot like Herb in the morning). In the botanical name for Lamb's Ears, we have the species name LANATA which means woolly. Tomentose must be an advanced case of lanata. An odd thing about tomentose plants is that they are very drought resistant.

PREBIOTIC: A food, like chicory, that nourishes the good bacteria that are already in the digestive system, causing them to grow. While PROBIOTICS are live, active cultures of NECESSARY bacteria that are actually ingested. An example of a food with probiotics is LIVE CULTURE yogurt.

STILL-ROOM GARDEN: A small garden tended by the housewife and her maids. From its worts (plants) were made electuaries, which were the soothing herb-and-honey medicinals; robs (rubs), hot drinks, salves, sweet washing waters, perfumes and other "conceits." This definition comes from  Helen Noyes Webster in her book of 1939 simply titled Herbs. She was describing the colonial gardens of America and the transfer of the still-room from England to America.

FINES HERBES: Thyme, along with Bay and Parsley, is one of the three traditional herbs used in Fines Herbes, a mixture of fresh herbs usually added at the end of cooking. While the amount of each herb varies, parsley is usually used in greater amounts because Thyme and Bay are very strong. Today, these little bundles of cooking herbs may also include three or four of the following: Basil, Chervil, Chives, Marjoram, Mint, Rosemary, Sage, Savory, Tarragon. These are usually tied together and removed later or chopped very fine and left to stew. These cooking posies are not to be confused with Bouquet Garni; the cheesecloth herbs. These herbs can be used fresh or dried and sometimes include spices. Cooked in the dish in their little bag, they are removed and discarded before serving the dish.

HYDROSOL: The condensed water that is left behind when plants are steam distilled to make essential oil.  A little like waters made from roses and lavenders and other herbs, except more pure and a little more concentrated. You can make your own waters, just by steeping an herb in warm water and straining.

DORMANT BUD AND RESTING BUD: We are not referring to your next door neighbors here, but to the buds that are coming alive as spring weather urges them to wake up. Resting Buds are awakened when their development is finished and other conditions are met. Dormant Buds wake up when the weather warms up. At least they can wake up. Latent Buds can be doomed to a non existence existence. These buds usually do not appear unless the plant is pruned. Sometimes they are on very old wood and you really can't tell they are there. Buds are held on twigs (of course) and there are a couple of terms that refer to how the buds are held on these twigs. Terminal buds are at the top and lateral buds are on the sides. Cut out the top bud and the side buds shoot out. The bud on top has a rough time staying there on most of my plants. Because pruning makes for healthy plants and bushy buds. Wonder if that would work on the neighbors?

PARTERRE: All Knot Gardens are parterres, but not all parterres form a knot. The name parterre (pronounced PAR - tare) is from Old French 'par terre' literally translated 'on the ground'. It is a flower garden having the beds and paths arranged to form a pattern. This precise and informative definition comes to us from the site of Lakewold Gardens. On this site you can visit their knot garden and their parterre. You can tell someone has been pruning, pruning, pruning. (Just can't seem to get past all that work).

ENTOMOLOGIST: A person who studies Odonta (dragonflies) and Ephemeroptera (Mayflies). A bug guy/gal. Here is a very interesting source of information on bugs with some great photos too.

COLORS IN CODE: You can probably guess that the purpurea in Digitalis purpurea (Foxglove) means purple. Here are some other coded messages you might find affixed to the botanical names of plants. The pronunciation follows each word in parenthesis.

coccinea (coe-sin'ee-a) means scarlet

coeruleum (see-rue'lee-um) means blue

flavum (flay'vum) means nearly pure yellow

haematodes (he-ma-toe'dees) means blood red

lutescens (loo-tes'sens) means becoming yellow

nivalis (niv-aye'lis) means snow white or growing near snow

niveum (niv'ee-um) also means snow white

punctata (punk-tay'ta) means the seven dwarfs---just kidding--- it means dotted

rutilans (rue-ti-lans) means glowing deep red

sanguinea (san-gwin'ee-a) means blood red

virens (vie-renz) means green

virginale (vur-gin-ay'lee) means white

JUGLONE: A toxic substance, a napthaquinone (science talk), that has been found in all parts of  plants in the Walnut family, which includes walnuts, pecans and hickories. Here is a clear cut case of which came first the Walnut or the Juglone. The botanical name for the Walnut family is Jugandacea. While both were created at the same time, man obviously named juglone after discovering the toxic substance in the walnut tree whose name was given to it long before there were laboratories.

TOPIARY: The training of living trees and shrubs into artificial, decorative shapes. Densely leaved evergreen shrubs are used in topiary; the best subjects are box, cypress, and yew, although others--such as rosemary, myrtle, holly, and box honeysuckle--are used with success. 

HIGH TEA: A tradition started in the late 1600's to stave off hunger pains until dinner was served. Dinner was usually late. Probably because they were all full from High Tea. Both the " beautiful bread" scones and crumpets are traditional accompaniments with High Tea but usually something a little more substantial is provided as well, like a little Welsh Rarebit.

SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE and SODIUM LAUREL SULFATE: These are derived from petroleum and cause foaming. They don't necessarily clean anything they just make it look like the soap is working. These are really pretty harsh on the skin. These were the two ingredients that used to be impossible to get away from in shampoo. Sometimes there are a lot of natural herb extracts on the label before these, but keep looking one of these will be there somewhere. Notice the company your shampoo keeps. Maybe we should save the foam for the beer. What do you say, Guys?

CULTIVAR: Plants that have common origin and similar characteristics. For instance, Lavenders Hidcote, Munstead and Jean Davis are all Lavandula angustifolia cultivars. They come from Lavandula angustifolia plants and have similar but not identical traits, Jean Davis is a pink form and Munstead is a light purple. 

FREE WATER: (And we don't mean that stuff from the gas station) Water between cells that is released when freezing occurs. This is what toasts your tender plants. This is also what causes a lot of spring damage to new shoots that emerge during nice weather and then get their water frozen in an end of the season frost. Bound Water is the water that is held in the cell. One thing you can do to decrease the damage of cold weather is to harden the cells so they don't let so much free water wander between them. This means if you cut back on the fertilizing in late summer and the over watering in fall, your plants will do better when freezing weather hits. Free Water seems like it cost a lot to me.

The A HORIZON: The upper layer of soil( there are also B and C Horizon) which should be rich with humus and a dark brown to black color. This is the layer the bulldozer moved to build your house. This is also the layer most often destroyed by poor gardening practices such as chemical fertilization and applications of herbicide.

HARDINESS: That quality which causes plants to resist injury from unfavorable temperature. This term is often misunderstood. It has nothing to do with the actual vitality of a plant or its ability to withstand sun or drought. Hardiness deals only with the minimum winter temperature that a plant can withstand. If I were a plant my hardiness level would be somewhere around zone Caribbean.

LIGHT INTENSITY: The quantity of light that affects how the plant grows.  For plants that grow in full sun there are often several layers of food making cells, which causes the plant to grow faster. In the shade with less quantity of light, there are fewer layers of food making cells. Plus, these cells are more succulent. This is why lettuce, for instance, grown in a foggy coastal environment gets larger than that grown in my full sun garden.

PRINCIPAL PARTS OF A STEM: 1. xylem (pronounced zeye lum) makes up most of the stem and carries the water and food from the root to the top part of the plant , 2. phloem (pronounced flow um) is part of the bark of the stem and carries food up and down 3. cambium  (pronounced came be um) is where all the growing is going on. The cells found on the inside of the cambium become xylem and those on the outside become phloem. It is like a big sandwich, with xylem as one bun and phloem as another and cambium as the peanut butter in between. These parts are found in both woody and herbaceous stems though not arranged the same way. Woody stems are easy to tell, they are, well, woody and hard and usually brown, like in trees. Herbaceous stems are soft and succulent and tend to die back to the ground in cold winters, like scented geraniums.

MODIFIED STEMS: Why is it we have to have so many names for the same thing? Stems that aren't quite normal (or modified) are given many different names, like rhizomes, which are thick underground stems that can make roots and shoots (Mint is famous for these); corms, which are round stems that are used for food storage (Saffron comes from the Crocus corm); bulbs, which are also round stem storage facilities but can be distinguished from corms by the layers of leaves around them (like our healthy Garlic bulbs); and finally, tubers, which are irregularly-shaped, swollen underground stems that both store food and contain reproductive powers (the most famous is the root vegetable, the potato, which is not a root at all, but a tuber--or modified stem).  And, don't forget the thorns and tendrils which are really just more modified stems.

STOMATE: Tiny pores in leaves that allow gaseous exchanges. These are on the under sides of leaves and they are what let the plant breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Isn't it nifty that we do just the opposite during our gaseous exchanges?

THE VAPOURS: What all the ladies used to get. Men could get them too, but they weren't allowed to admit it.  It is an old term that referred to the blues, even to the point of severe depression or hysteria. Good thing the term fell out of use. Just wouldn't sound right singing the vapours?

ABSCISSION LAYER: Question: Why is it that we are always warned about gouging trunks of trees and leaving holes for disease to enter and yet leaves pull off trees every year with abandon? It is because of the abscission layer. At the base of the leaf stem are super cells that grow really fast as winter approaches to close the hole left by the falling leaf. Mother Nature thought of everything.

ESSENTIAL OIL: When is an oil not an oil? When it is an essential oil. Really the term essence seems more appropriate. Those tiny little vials termed essential oils are really the pure plant parts with nothing added.  Usually they get these by some kind of distillation process like steam. It takes a lot of plant to make a little bit of essence. Be careful not to leave the lid off because they evaporate (ever see an oil evaporate?) Infused Oil: This really is an oil. It is made by pressing or steeping herbs in an oil either hot or cold. Sometimes the essential essence is added to the infused oil to give it a boost. And while we can make infused oils at home (see The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants for instructions on how to make infused oils) and use them almost like essential oils, there is a difference. Quality essential oils are checked for their specific chemical components to make sure they are what they should be when we use them for what we use them for. And, for that you need to read this weeks book selection, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils.

CHEMICAL LEAVENING AGENTS: These are used in commercial baking powders. These include Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate (which is also used in cement, ink and explosives) and Monocalcium Phosphate (which is also use in fertilizer and paint). Don't think Herb will find any of these in his garden either.

AEROBIC AND ANAEROBIC COMPOST: We all know from all those work out books and tapes that are stored somewhere in the garage that aerobic means with air. It doesn't take a giant leap to figure out anaerobic means without air. In compost, it means speed. Compost that is aerobic breaks down faster because the bacteria that do the chewing up of those big banana peels you threw in the pile like the air (me too). Compost that is anaerobic, like at the city dump where it is buried and left alone, may never decompose or at the very least takes a lot longer. That is why plastic that is buried will be around for a long time under the sands of the dump, but the plastic on the greenhouse degrades into little tiny shreds. Kind of seems backwards if you ask me.

APOMICTS (APOMIXIS): Development of buds inside seed organs without fertilization. A neat trick!

BUD BREAK: Resting Buds resume growth. So that's a bud break!

CALLUS: Wound tissue which develops from cambium or other exposed meristem ( Cambium and Meristem are the parts of the plant that make new cells.

FLOWER MEANINGS: The Victorians were so romantic they gave meanings to everything. Here are a few herbs and what they meant. 

Angelica stands for inspiration (if you ever tried to germinate Angelica seeds you know you have to be inspired to keep at it).

Basil stands for good wishes. You will need good wishes ( or some row cover) to keep the bugs from enjoying the basil before you do.

Chamomile stands for patience, especially if you are trying to make a lawn like all the books show.

ADAPTOGENIC: Helps the body to adapt to stress and supports normal function. Amen to that!

ZEST: The flavorful colored skin of the citrus fruits, minus the white underlying pith, which is bitter. It may be grated or peeled and then minced or julienne. Just make sure it is from Organic fruit.

AUXIN: Natural hormone produced in the apical regions (the tips of the stems). Auxin inhibits growth of lateral buds (those on the sides of the stem). This is why when you cut the top of the stem, the side shoots grow.

GENUS: For instance, in a Caper bush (Capparis spinoza) the genus is Capparis, which just happens to mean Caper in Greek. Just for your information, the plural of Genus is Genera.

SPECIES: There may be more than one Capparis (a genus name) and maybe they don't all have flower buds we want to pickle so we make a further designation to get the right plant. In this case, it is spinoza, which as you can probably guess means spiny. So we know when we see Capparis spinoza we are getting the one and only Caper Bush. Just for your information, the species name is never capitalized. 

CARBOHYDRATE: For plants this means energy (just like it does for humans).

CARBOHYDRATE ACCUMULATION: When the carbs are not used right away they are turned to sugars and saved for future growth (for humans this means fat).

CARBOHYDRATE UTILIZATION: When the plant uses the sugar. Plants know when they need to make more carbohydrates and don't ever store too much sugar. (Definitely not like humans) Are plants smarter than humans? Scary, huh?

SARDONIC: Derived from the Greek Sardonios which means bitter or scornful laughter: the primary reference is to the effects of eating a Sardinian plant which was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.

BOUQUET GARNI: The French term for herbs bundled together. A traditional combination is 3 sprigs of parsley, 1 bay leaf and 1 sprig of thyme. The milder the herb the more you use. The bigger the pot of soup the bigger the Bouquet Garni.

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