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Don Kinzler, Published February 28 2014

Savvy Planting: A little scientific sleuthing helps foil plant imposters

An advertisement in the Sunday Parade magazine caught my eye and begged for investigative reporting.

“Amazing new grass seed guarantees you a lush green lawn in all four seasons in every climate! No preparation needed, and in just ten days you’ll be proud of a thick, green lawn!”

The ad said “The Original Canada Green” seed can be mine at last. Beautiful grass stays green year-round from Florida to Alaska, even under heavy snow. Now I can transform a dead, brown, weedy eyesore just by broadcasting seed with no preparation needed. I can even let nature do the watering. Best of all, it’s “As Seen on TV.”

How can we tell if products are really adapted for us? When I encounter ads in magazines or plant catalogs, I grab my magnifying glass. Often in tiny print, ingredients or scientific names are listed. Both are keys to investigating plant adaptability.

In the case of “Canada Green” grass seed, I found no information in the ad providing clues to its true identity. After calling the toll-free number and inquiring about the ingredients, I was told it contained red fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and ryegrass. I asked if it was annual or perennial ryegrass. The nice lady told me “Well, it says it stays green all year around.” (Even after I told her I was calling from Fargo.)

An Internet search of the label revealed the contents as 53 percent creeping red fescue, 23 percent annual ryegrass, 14 percent perennial ryegrass, and 4 percent Kentucky bluegrass. These grasses will grow here, but the proportions are completely out of whack. One fourth of the mix is annual ryegrass, which grows for one season, then dies. It is discouraged in a mix. Creeping red fescue tolerates shade, but the percentage is too high. Kentucky bluegrass and its cultivars should be the predominant component in our lawns, but Canada Green mix contains only a tiny amount.

The advertised seed is priced at $25.90 for 2 pounds. We can purchase premium quality adapted grass seed blends locally for a fraction of the price. Because it is a poorly concocted mix, university extension services of North Dakota, Utah and Iowa advise against its purchase.

The legal requirement for a seed content label saved us in the case of Canada Green grass. But what about plant materials that don’t have “ingredients?" Locating the scientific name of the plant is the single most important Sherlock Holmes trick in determining whether something is adapted in cold hardiness and soil suitability.

For example, Gurney’s catalog describes “Saskatoon Blueberry” as tasting like a true blueberry but doesn’t need acid soil; it’s hardy in zone 3 and produces a huge crop on a 15-foot bush. Sounds great, but will it perform here? The shrub’s true identity is revealed by the scientific name Amelanchier alnifolia. We know it commonly as the Juneberry. And yes, it is well-adapted, delicious, and deserving of widespread planting.

Official scientific names are to plants what social security numbers are to us. Giving plants common nicknames willy-nilly is as dangerous as filing my tax return using my childhood nickname of Donald Duck and leaving out my identifying numbers. Manitoba Maple might sound enticing, but its scientific name Acer negundo unmasks it as the boxelder tree.

Scientific names are sometimes called botanical names or Latin names. To eliminate confusion caused by local common names, botanists have assigned every plant one standard internationally recognized name written in Latin. We can communicate to any gardener around the world about Sanseveria without worrying if they call it snakeplant, swordplant or mother-in-laws tongue.

This naming system contains two parts, and is used for all living things. The first part of the name identifies the genus to which the individual belongs, and the second part the species within the genus. Humans belong to the genus and species Homo sapiens. The first letter of the genus should be capitalized and the species lower case. Scientific names should be italicized or underlined when written.

Common among plants are special selections and introductions called “cultivars,” which is short for cultivated variety. To communicate with someone in Latvia about Norland potato, we can use the name Solanum tuberosum ‘Norland’ and be confident we are referring to the same item. Cultivars are enclosed in single quotation marks.

Scientific names are valuable and easy to investigate with internet availability. With a plant’s identifying name you can unlock all its secrets, especially hardiness zones. A search of its official identity reveals as much about a plant as your credit report reveals about you. Today’s world is casual about many things, but we need to firmly demand the continued use of official scientific names.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com