As regular readers know, I am very -- indeed, almost frighteningly -- interested in trying to get plant names right. Sometimes they're wrong anyway, but this is never from laziness or disinterest. As proof, for anyone who may be unconvinced, I offer this recent post, which was all about announcing that I had taken most of a day to correct spelling and IDs on plants mentioned in the blog since the very first post, and defending myself for not changing other designations I know or suspect to be wrong.
I yield to no one in my ability to nitpick and make trivial plant-identity-related distinctions.
And the reason why I do this is not so much that I believe it matters in and of itself what a thing is called -- a rose by the name of "child-eating skunk vomit plant" would smell as sweet1 -- but because you can't talk about a plant to other people unless you're sure you're both using the same name to speak about the same plant. If I'm telling you how to care for the drought-hating, cold-sensitive, mite-prone, humidity-loving "zebra plant" Calathea zebrina --
-- there will be no end of confusion and plant carnage if you think I'm talking about the succulent, summer-and-winter-dormant, rot-prone "zebra plant" Haworthia attenuata:
And in the world of wholesale and retail plant-selling, it's even more important that everybody's talking about the same thing, which is why botanical names tend to be specified in commercial settings. They may not be strictly taxonomically up-to-date, but they're at least usually unambiguous.
So I appreciate the frustration in buying a plant where someone took the time to stick a tag on it, only to find that the tag says "Green Plant" or "Tropical Foliage" or "Cactus/Succulent" or what have you. It's nice to know specifically what you've got. If nothing else, it makes it easier to figure out how to care for the plant and what it's likely to do in the future, or recommend the plant to someone else, or whatever.
However, I run across a lot of complaints about these tags that go beyond just being frustrated at not being given a name, with which I sympathize, and cross the line into outright prickishness, with which I sympathize not so much. One of the first examples of the latter, and probably still the most irritating one I've run into, is this post by Steve Aitken more than a year ago at finegardening.com, who somehow manages to complain about a semi-legitimate problem in such a way as to sound like an ignorant, douchey, entitled asshole.
And maybe Mr. Aitken actually is an ignorant, douchey, entitled asshole.
Such people exist.
He might be one of them.
We don't know.
The post, just a series of questions, begins with "Couldn't you [the person who wrote the "green plant" tag] have at least tried to come up with a name?" and gets steadily worse from there. So here, for the record, are Mr. Aitken's questions, with the answers the tag's author might give, allowed the opportunity:
1. Couldn’t you have at least tried to come up with a name?
That's actually not possible. The reason why "green plant" tags exist in the first place is because retailers need a way to provide care instructions for plants they don't sell many of. (Tags are not cheap, by the way.) The same company that makes "Green Plant" tags also makes tags specific to Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, Cyclamen, poinsettia, and other high-volume plants for which care questions are likely to come up a lot. If tags are sold in batches of 100, and you sell, say, six Asplundia 'Jungle Drum' plants a year, do you really need a Asplundia tag? Most customers don't care what they have or how to keep it alive in the first place. And the retailer should be able to tell the customer an ID and provide basic care instructions if asked. I mean, many of them can't, but that's not the tag-makers' fault.
So rather than have hundreds and thousands of plant tags sitting around, for each possible variety of each possible plant,2 retailers sensibly buy tags for the plants they sell a lot of, and use generic "green plant" tags for the low-volume plants, as most tropical foliage plants want fairly similar care anyway.3 This is why "green plant" tags exist. It's not because somebody believes that "green plant" is the name of any specific plant.4
2. Couldn’t you have shouted to a co-worker, “Hey, what kind of plant is this anyway?”
3. Was the answer “A green one”?
Okay, now you're just being a dick.
4. Why don’t any of the numerous plants in the picture look like my Green Plant?
Because they're not supposed to look like your Green Plant. They're there to illustrate the general range of plantiness compatible with the care instructions on the back of the tag.
5. Some of the plants in the photo are actually green and white. Would they be considered Green Plants, too?
They sure would! Also, you're a dick.
6. If you couldn’t even bother to provide a name, how much can I trust your recommendation of “moderate light”?
You've got it backwards. Only plants that need moderate light should be wearing this tag. If a plant needed high light, it should have a different tag.
7. Isn’t “moderate light” just hedging your bet, since you don’t know what plant this is and couldn’t possibly know what it needs for light?
8. Isn’t the information provided under “How to Care for your Green Plant” true for 90% of indoor plants?
So you're saying that you don't believe it matters, in most of the cases, what the plant's actual identity is, but you're busting my chops because the tag doesn't identify precisely what the plant is?
All the lesser dicks must just worship you.
9. Aren’t the “key tips for success” merely a restatement of the hopelessly general instructions that come first?
You'd be surprised how people often don't read things the first time.
10. Did you also want to include the following instructions: Plant in dark soil in a pot with the opening facing up. Do not bleach. Do not place in freezer. Water should be wet before applying to Green Plant.
Would you do any of these things if not specifically instructed not to? No? Then why would you assume that anybody else would?
11. Did you have a meeting to brainstorm other ways this tag could be less helpful?
No. My boss gave me a list of 100 plant names and said "I want you to write care tags for each of these 100 plants. We need them by noon tomorrow."
What's unhelpful about the tag as it now stands, anyway? What would you like to see included that isn't being addressed? Are you serious about the bleach thing?
12. Do you think people should get an “A” for effort?
No, but I don't see what that has to do with anything.
13. If so, what grade would you give yourself for this tag?
N/A, because I answered "no" for #12, but maybe a B-minus?
14. Is this a conspiracy?
[sigh] Would you like it to be? Would that make you happy?
15. Do you think you can get away with this?
I already have.
16. What do you mean “I already have.”? [punctuation sic]
17. Why do you hate me?
'Cause you're a dick.
Perhaps in the future, it will be possible for retailers to print out specific tags for any plant in creation. Maybe someone will start a business selling CD-ROMs and blank tags, so you can print tags as you need them (though someone would need to solve the problem of water-soluble printer ink first: plants and tags get wet sometimes). No tag wastage, pinpoint-precise plant tags, plant purists like myself could be satisfied that we had the right instructions at all times, and Mr. Aitken could focus his sarcasm more narrowly on things he understands5 instead of this embarrassing sarcasm-flailing he's doing.
It annoys me to feel compelled to defend the tag-writers: it's not like I'm normally a big fan of the instructions they provide (which usually strike me as encouraging people to keep their plants too dark and too wet). But talking to the writers as though they believe there's a plant out there called "green plant," and then mocking them for being so stupid as to believe that, is just mean-spirited, douchey idiocy.6 So I defend the tag-writers' collective honor. Such as it is.
1 (Though I bet they wouldn't sell as well.)
2 At one point, just for shiggles, I sat down at home and tried to come up with a list of every single species and cultivar of plant I could think of that we had in the tropical greenhouse right at that moment. I hit 275 before I quit, and because of my cactus blindness, I know I failed to include a lot of cactus species. Further, that was only at that particular moment, and in the particular establishment where I worked: it would be fairly easy for me to come up with a list of 500 plants that can be grown indoors.
3 It should be noted that I was never all that thrilled with the instructions on the "green plant" tags, and was occasionally moved to cross stuff out and write different instructions in for people. But that was also true of the specific plant tags. A plant's location, soil mix, pest infestations or lack thereof, etc., influence care requirements enough that you can only ever give people kind of a general idea of what to expect from a given plant.
Incidentally: if you have a plant you can't identify and need a best guess for what to do with it, I have a post about that. Though you should still try to figure out what it is as soon as you can.
4 Though the botanical name for Chlorophytum in fact does translate as "green plant," so one could argue that a Chlorophytum wearing a "green plant" tag is correctly-tagged both specifically and generally.
5 His author bio on this page actually says of Aitken, ". . . please hold the questions about houseplants, he openly admits to killing them." So maybe this is not an area of expertise in the first place, which makes the snotty attitude even more surprising.
6 I assume the defense, if anybody feels one needs to be made, will be something like geez, it was just a joke; lighten up, man. Which would be easier to believe had any of it been funny.