How to Read Nursery Tags

Shopping for plants can be daunting especially to a beginner.  In this section, we’ll show you how to read nursery tags to help you make the right choices for your garden.

Become a Nursery Tag Expert

nursery plant tag

Plant tags and labels can be confusing

Knowing your way around a nursery plant tag is easy and essential to making good plant choices.  This may seem like a lot of information, but it’s all very simple.  In no time, you’ll be reading tags like a pro.

All tags are different.  Some tags give very little information, while others tell the whole story.  Here are the typical highlights of a nursery tag:

Common name of the plant – All plants have a Latin name and one or more common names.  For example, a Black-Eyed Susan (common name) is actually rudbeckia fulgida (Latin name).

Latin name of the plant -   Latin names are typically two Latin words written in italics.  This Latin name is the species of the plant.  There is usually a third word after the Latin name in quotes.  This is the “cultivar” of the plant.  A cultivar is just a variation on the species.  Think of it like a dog.  A German Shepherd and a Chihuahua are both the same species (dog, or canis familiaris), but they look very different.  Cultivars are like that, different looks for the same species of plant.  Different cultivars of the same plant species may look as different as a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua.  Here is another example:

Echinacea purpurea is the Latin name for the common purple coneflower.

Echinacea pupurea “Magnus” is the typical tall purple flower.

Echinacea pupurea “White Swan” is the same species but with a white flower.

Photo of the plant – Beware.  The photos are usually overly flattering and don’t always show you a good example of how the plant will look in your yard.

Overall description – Like the photos, the descriptions will often lead you to believe that the plant is much more amazing than it really is.  Take these with a grain of salt.

Hardiness or Zone – There should be a range or single zone listed.  If it is just one zone then this is the coldest zone the plant can exist in.  Annuals don’t list a hardiness zone because they aren’t expected to live through the winter.

Light requirements – This is very important.  Plants need a certain amount of sun in order to thrive.  Different pants need different amounts of sun.  The tag should say in either words or symbols how much sun the plant needs.  The most common designations are Full Sun, Part Sun/Part Shade, and Shade. These sound obvious, but here’s what they mean:

Full Sun – The plant will need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to perform.  Sometimes the symbol of a yellow sun will be used.

Part Sun or Part Shade – The plant prefers 3 to 6 hours of sunlight.  Sometimes the symbol of a sun half yellow and half grayed-out will be used.

Shade or Full Shade – The plant prefers or can survive with less than 3 hours of sunlight.  Sometimes the symbol of a grayed-out sun is used.  There are many types of shade that we won’t get into here, but be aware that “shade” does not always mean that a site gets no sun at all.

Some plants can tolerate a mix of conditions so you may see more than one of these designations used for the same plant.

Size – A mature height and width should be given.  These are usually accurate, but with trees and shrubs, it may take several years to reach mature height and width.

Habit – This is very important.  Habit is just an elegant way of saying the shape of the mature plant.  Plant shapes will be very important in designing your yard so pay attention here!.  Plant shapes are pretty self-explanatory.  Some examples are columnar, pyramidal, low-mounding.  One that is not so obvious is “trailing”.  A “trailing” habit means the plant grows along the grown instead of up.  Also keep in mind that some trees and shrubs can be trimmed to a different shape than their natural habit.

Growth Rate – This is not often included on tags, but if it is, pay attention. Most people will try to save money by buying a small plant and hoping it will grow once planted.  This may be fine for fast growing plants, but if the plant is slow growing it may take (what seems like) forever to reach mature size.  Also beware to leave lots of room for fast growing plants to grow, or be prepared to trim frequently.

Another two very important terms you may see on a nursery tag are invasive and self-sowing.  Invasive plants will aggressively spread and are usually difficult to remove or control.  It’s surprising that nurseries even sell these plants, but believe me, they do!  Self-sowing plants will sprout new plants around your yard randomly.  Either of these might be good in the right circumstance, but for beginners, I would suggest steering clear of any invasive plants and anything that is labeled as aggressively self-sowing.

This may seem like a lot of information to digest, but reading the nursery tag well is vital to making good plant choices.  Most of the information is easy to understand, but feel free to bring this guide along with you to the nursery until you get familiar with the language.


Here’s a quick summary of what we learned in this section:

  • Plants have common names and Latin names
  • The Latin name is usually two words in italics that tell the species of the plant
  • The Latin name is usually followed by the cultivar of the plant in quotations.
  • The cultivar is a variation on the original species such as different flower color or other attribute.
  • Light requirements of a plant are very important.  These are designated as Full Sun, Part Sun and Shade.
  • The habit of a plant is its mature shape.
  • Invasive and aggressively self-sowing plants can take over your garden quickly and should be avoided except for special circumstances.

Wow! We learned a lot in this section.  Most of this will become second nature to you as you start buying and planting plants.