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Every Term You Need to Know to Describe Plants

Planting is a large part of any landscape, so it’s a good idea to understand some of the basics about plants and how to maintain them. While we find some of our clients have a good grasp on this, most of us need a bit of help.

We've all heard different terms used to communicate about plants; when so many terms we’ve heard can be used to describe the same thing, it can cause some confusion. To reduce the confusion, we’ve boiled it down to a few choice words, so you can easily get a grasp on plants in a matter of minutes.

Plants: All living things on Earth have been categorized, the Plant Kingdom is one of these categories. It’s separated from other living things according to some very specific scientific knowledge. But for our purpose, just know it covers almost all living things in your yard, excluding your pets or chickens and definitely your kid who likes to sleep in a tent outdoors. We can divide all your plants into two categories, there are woody and non-woody plants.

Woody Related Words

Woody: These are plants with woody tissue. Tissues are a bunch of similar cells working together to perform a function. Think of the outer shiny surface of a leaf as your skin which is a tissue that does multiple tasks, including basic protection.

A plant is considered to have woody tissue when the main structure of it (the inside parts- not the leaves) produces wood. Wood is a hard, organic material that resist compression. Woody plants produce a new layer of woody tissue each year, think rings in trees. Woody plants are designed this way because it allows them to hold up to harsher conditions and survive year-round above ground. Some examples of woody plants are trees, roses and woody vines like ivy.

Tree: A tree is a small plant with woody tissue.

Shrub: A shrub is a plant with woody tissue just like a tree. The only real difference between a shrub and a tree is its size. It has several main stems arising at or near the ground. Trees mainly have one large stem and branch off from there. Examples of shrubs include roses and many types of hedges. You can burn the wood of a shrub just like you would that of a tree.

Bush: Another word for describing a shrub.

Stem: Stems describe the main part which grows up from the roots and can branch out. It does not include the leaves or buds. Stems provide support to hold up the plant to the light and it transports water and minerals from the soil and rocks to other parts of the plant. There are several terms used to describe different types of woody stems.

  • Trunk- the main stem of a woody plant coming out of the ground

  • Branch- a smaller stem of a woody plant than the trunk, it describes stems branching off the trunk or other branches

  • Bough- the main branch of a tree

  • Twig- an even smaller stem/branch coming off other branches or trunk of a woody plant

  • Stalk- this can be a confusing word in that it basically describes a stem but also has other meanings that go along with it. It also describes parts of both woody and non-woody plants. The term stalk is used to describe a small stem connecting a leaf to another stem, as well as to describe a stem plus connected leaves or flowers, like a stalk of celery in non-woody plants.

Shoot: also used for non-woody plants, shoots describe a young immature stem as well as the leaves, flowers, buds and other small stems growing from it. The word shoot can also describe the young plant growing up from a seed.

Evergreen: This is a tree or shrub that keeps its leaves year-round. Examples of evergreens are Boxwood and Pine trees. Pine needles are the pine tree’s leaves and they stay on the tree year-round.

Boxwood Pine Trees

Deciduous: This is a tree or shrub that loses its leaves every year. Examples of deciduous plants are Apple trees and Hydrangeas.

Apple Tree Hydrangea

Non-Woody Related Words

Herbaceous: These are plants with very flexible stems, unlike wood that is stiff. Their leaves and stems die down to soil level at the end of every growing season. Herbaceous plants can be further categorized into annual, biennial or perennial plants.

Annuals: Most herbaceous plants are annual plants, which go through their whole life cycle, from germination to death, in one year. In this case the whole plant dies back into the ground after producing large amounts of seeds. They don’t all necessarily follow the same cycle as some have their growing season in summer and others in winter.

Germination (growth from a seed)

Biennials: Biennial plants go through two growing seasons before they complete their life cycle compared to an annual which goes through only one. What occurs in these plants, such as carrots, is they accumulate food reserves in their first year so they can grow seeds and flowers in the second year. Like annuals, the parent plant dies once seeds and flowers have been produced.

Perennials: These are plants that can survive for more than two years and many can last for decades.

Stem: Just like woody plants, Herbaceous plants also have stems.

Buds: Just like woody plants, Herbaceous plants also have buds.

Shoot: Just like woody plants, Herbaceous plants also have shoots. The picture above for germination shows a shoot (stem and leaves).

Stalk: Just like woody plants, Herbaceous plants also have stalks.

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