Monday, March 8, 2010

(Really late) Counter-rant: "Green Plant" tag


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 --

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:

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, 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:

The "Interview"

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?”

See above.

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?

See above.


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.

In conclusion

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.


Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Har har har...loved this post. And the tag that Steve Aitken is referring to is not that bad. It does offer a reasonable amount of advice. You should see one of the tags I've run across that just wrote something like this: "Light, very little water". And that's it. Really. It did include the plant's name though. Maybe Steve would prefer that? And all this petty sarcasm at Fine Gardening (a magazine that's supposed to be sohpisticated; what a shame.

ScreamingGreenConure said...

One of the first plants I bought this year was labelled as a "coral cactus." I went home and googled that for care instructions, and it turns out "coral cactus" can be a bunch of things. It turned out to be a rhipsalis cereuscula. I've mainly switched to a local garden centre that does tag everything, and it's now much easier to select things I've read about, or have a vague idea about. I agree it's really frustrating if the tag just says something like that, especially if you're a n00b like me and therefore just learning taxonomy, but there's little point in yelling at the guy on the sales floor about it. You don't even know if they're the one that prints the things out, and they can't ID every single plant on the floor.

Tina said...

Oh, my. Haha, beautiful!
Thank you . . . this post was the perfect thing to read first thing in the morning.

Diane said...

"Shiggles" made me laugh for a very long time. Best word since "fugly"!

I've often wondered what Chlorophytum did to deserve the "green plant" name. Out of all the plants in the world, THAT one gets the Grand Generic Name Prize?

Aaerelon said...

You're fantastic! I'm thinking yo should start that CD. Maybe instead a subscription to an online catalogue. They can describe the plant in a few words, upload some pictures and then the site will search and present possible plants.

I'm sure this database would have the least number of errors of any ever created! That may be insulting... I mean NO errors.

Diana/ Garden on the Edge said...

I have several plants at home that I haven't been able to identify. After a good investigation on the web I just call them George. I have George the First, George the Second, etc. I have managed to figure out their growing conditions and all are thriving.

A good web site to check out if you buy a "Green Plant" at a Big Box retailer is This is the grower that supplies many of the big box retailers. It takes some time but I've been able to identify several "Green Plants" from that web site.

Yes, I buy plants at the Big Box stores. I've gotten post-blooming orchids for as little as $1 and I got my wonderful Rhipsalis capilliformis at Big Box stores.

Anonymous said...

Loved the post. I do really want to know because not only does it help me care for a plant but it enables me to chase that plant across time and space and history while I learn how it happened to make its way to my house.

(Interestingly I learned that kids - despite what I was told - absolutely loved to learn (and use) Latin names. After all, what kid could resist the mouthful of Podophyllum pelatatum or Dizygotheca elegantissima and the likes?)

My favorite garden center of all time was in Lexington MA, and the original owners kept a huge reference library up front at their "help" desk. While they couldn't have everything tagged, they were tireless in trying to track down the names of plants and would even work with me on plants I'd bought elsewhere. Alas, they were bought out by a large corporation and that service was canned. But I am fanatic about wanting to know the names of my plants and it is some chore to track things down from my cabin in the wildlands.

mr_subjunctive said...

Diana / Garden on the Edge:

I left you IDs for one and a half of your plants, at GotE; George II is a puzzler, though.

I buy plants at the big box stores, too (as recently as last Saturday, in fact); they seem to be getting better at giving a plausible name for the succulents and cacti. The other plants not so much.

One down side to Exotic Angel plants is, though the overwhelming majority of their plants will have an ID tag, it's not necessarily the right tag, and they don't have pictures on the tags. So you still have to Google when you get home and make sure that the tag matches your plant.


I totally agree that it's nice -- sometimes even crucial -- to know. The kind of tags Aitken criticizes were, in the garden center where I worked, mainly sent out with gift plants through the flower shop. So the person buying the plant wasn't going to be the person taking care of them, in most cases, and didn't even necessarily want the plant in the first place.

The bulk of gift plants and funeral plants that the flower shop sent out had specific tags on them (Norfolk Island pine, poinsettia, kalanchoe, etc.), so I'm not sure the "green plant" tags actually got used that much. We had some care instructions on the price tags we used in the store, though the first greenhouse manager to get some in was the person who wrote the tags, and I could never figure out a way to change them, so I was sometimes stuck with care information I didn't agree with there, too. Though at least they were correctly identified.

I'll pretty much always take a shot at identifying unknown plants, if anybody directs me to a picture, and although Garden Web has gotten more annoying to use over time, it's still also a good place to find out IDs. Poking around in the plant files at Dave's Garden can be useful, too, if you have a guess as to the family or genus first. And for cacti there's

So it's probably much easier to find out what your NOID plants are now than it's ever been before. If you have internet access, and care enough to spend the time doing it.

Peter said...

Nice takedown. But, as an aside, there are indeed CD-ROMS of plant labels and they work with regular laser printers on special water-proof papers, or special plastic-tag label printers. You can print out 1 tag at a time, if you so choose.

mr_subjunctive said...


I knew I couldn't have been the first person to think of that.

Liza said...

You had me at "dick." Just kidding, lol! I really enjoyed this post, mr_s.

I wonder why would a site like fine gardening even have a writer who admittedly kills houseplants? I know lots of writers who write better and know how to keep plants alive. It's a bad choice on their part.

I'll bet Steve thought he was being heeeelarious with that post. Too bad for us, it wasn't funny at all.

Kimberly said...

Hysterical! Great post! How 'bout the tags that say "house plant" or "foliage" or "palm". UGH! The local nursery is the place to go!

Anonymous said...

This cracked me up.

I know, it might be partially because I'm tipsy and easy to crack up, but it was still hella funny.


forest said...

So why "green" plant? Why not just "plant" or "living plant?" And while I'm at it, does this mean that there are other tags that say "grey plant" or "red plant" or "variegated plant" and do they have different instructions?

I've seen tags at the big box stores that say "high light", "medium light" and "low light" that I think are much more helpful.

mr_subjunctive said...


My best guess? The flower shop used to refer to "blooming plants" vs. "green plants," with the actual distinguishing characteristic between them being that blooming plants are things generally kept temporarily (kalanchoe, azalea, Reiger begonias, cyclamen, primula, poinsettia, forced bulbs) and green plants being plants meant for long-term care. "Blooming plants" generally have green foliage, and "green plants" may bloom (Anthurium, Spathiphyllum) and are not necessarily green (crotons, Gynura aurantiaca), but still, those are the distinctions.

It's primarily econonomic: blooming plants tend to be cheaper.

I have the feeling it made more sense in the past than it maybe does now that there are more options. But the terms do get to the relevant part of the equation if you're the florist, walking through the greenhouse, looking for a plant to fill an order: green plants are usually green, and blooming plants are supposed to be blooming.

Not that this makes anything any clearer to the person receiving the plant and reading the tag, of course.

Diana/ Garden on the Edge said...

Wow. Thanks for the reply (to the casual reader I posted a comment about not knowing the id of some of my houseplants and Mr. S popped over to my blog and helped out).

I'm not sure about the Hoya ID, though (although the pictures do make it look like a Hoya). That's because I know two things you don't know. 1. The guy I got the cutting from grows it for it's BLOOMS and 2. the leaves are a bit thick and waxy, the texture more like a Kalanchoe than a Hoya. I'm waiting for it to bloom for me (which will probably take a while still) and then I'll really try to identify it.

Joseph said...

Very funny -- but I still find the whole "green plant" thing pretty indefensible. I've NEVER seen a "green plant" style tag for plants intended to be grown outdoors -- and there are MORE of them out there than house plants. Whoever is producing these things at the whole sale level is growing enough to make tag printing reasonable, and they should just do it. If not, nurseries should invest in a label printer (We have one in the greenhouse at school -- they're not that expensive) and make their own tags with at least the name to go along with the basic care info on the "green plant" tag.

Jenn said...

Have to say, I've had a hate-on for those generic tags, myself.

That said, I love your rebuttal.

mr_subjunctive said...

Greensparrow and Jenn:

True. And in an ideal world . . . well, you know.

Like I said, I'm a little irked at feeling like I have to defend the tag-writer. But Aitken's bit was mean, condescending, and in bad faith. I felt like I had to.

Coelus said...

I'm glad I wasn't drinking milk when I read this post, because I hate it when milk comes out of my nose. I think you could've written "dick" twice or three more times and I still would've laughed every time. (Actually, I think you probably nailed it... I have a bad habit of driving those sorts of things into the ground...).

You are absolutely right - in an ideal world these horribly generic tags wouldn't exist. But it sure ain't an ideal world, so yeah... we've got "former US President George Bush Jr." and we've got "green plant" tags. If only money didn't matter we wouldn't have these things... but it does... a lot (and let's not kid ourselves, money matters to almost all of us). So, we have to endure the bad with the good. Yes, we have "green plant" tags, but we also have google and blogs teeming with the knowledge of many, many plant lovers (with good senses of humor, I might add).

Thanks for making plants funny... this is why I keep coming back.

Anonymous said...

Interesting -- RE the generic ID tags, I accidentally ran across a link last night for a subscription to a database that would solve the generic tag problem, too. Though some places are probably too cheap to use such a thing.

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