How to Talk to Nursery Folk

sago, cycad


I love identifying plants for people, mostly because it makes me feel smart, but also because I genuinely like to see people excited about adding something new to their landscape. About half the time they’ll bring in a picture or a cutting from a tree or shrub that they’ve seen around town, which admittedly makes the game a whole lot easier for me.

The other half of the time though, they want me to figure out what kind of plant they’re talking about based on nothing more than their description of it. In these instances, I’m usually astounded by how desperately they want to know the name of a plant that they’ve evidently not looked at all.


This is a cactus. A cholla, to be specific. And this image is relevant, or rather, it will be by the end. I promise.

The conversation typically goes something like this:

Them: “There’s a tree I really, really want, but I don’t know the name of it.”

Me: “Okay, do you have a picture or a sample of it?”

Them: “No, but I can describe it. It has green leaves…and it’s tall. What do you think that is?”

Me: “I have no idea. Does it get flowers?”

Them: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Does it lose its leaves in the winter?”

Them: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Um, okay. Can you describe the shape of the leaves?”

Them: “Yeah! They’re, you know, leaf-shaped.”

At this point, the conversation will normally head off into one of two directions.

Me: “Have you seen the plant growing around Las Vegas?”

If they answer yes, I’ll ask them to take a picture or get a cutting from it and bring it into the nursery. If they do that, we can usually tell them what it is and whether or not it’s something we stock or can order from a grower. Problem solved.

If the answer is no, I ask them where they did see it and that’s when they tell me that it was growing all over the place in Honolulu or Anchorage or Bangladesh the last time they were there. I then have the pleasure of trying to explain to a person who has been to both places how the desert is different than the tropics or the jungle or the Arctic Circle, and that there’s a very real possibility that the tree they’re looking for that was thriving there might not do well here.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the best way to find out the name of a plant is by bringing in a cutting of it or, at the very least, a picture.  Just a tip: having both will get you big-time brownie points with the nursery staff. If you absolutely cannot find it growing anywhere in your area to take a sample of or to photograph, that might be a good indicator that it doesn’t grow in your climate.

Now, I’m definitely not suggesting that you should give up at that point. Just because a plant isn’t common in your town, that doesn’t automatically mean that it won’t work there. Maybe it would do just fine in your region, but the growers that your local nursery uses don’t have it readily available. Maybe you could grow it as a houseplant or even in a protected spot outside. Maybe you just want to know what it is because it’s so stupid pretty. You should, by all means, ask the employees at your favorite nursery for help. But you should also, by all means, be prepared to offer up more than “It has green leaf-shaped leaves,” as a description.

This is an asparagus fern. Bear with me. It’ll all come together in a minute.

How to Describe a Plant

First of all, tell the person helping you where you saw the plant growing. This helps to give them a better understanding of the conditions that it prefers, sure, but they might also have someone else on staff who’s more familiar with tropical plants or alpine flowers or whatever it is you’re looking for.

Next, be prepared to tell them the approximate height and width of the plant. You’d be surprised how much this can help to narrow things down and how often people describing a plant can’t answer this pretty basic question.

Obviously, if you see a plant growing while you’re on a weeklong stay in a resort somewhere, you’re not going to know if it flowers or produces seedpods or whether or not it loses its leaves in the winter. What you can take note of is the general shape of the leaves and how they’re growing. Are they long and slender, like a blade of grass, or are they short with a pointed tip? Are they heart-shaped or do they have lobes in them? Do they grow like a fan, in a cluster or from a long stalk? There are any number of characteristics that can help with identifying a plant, so you’ll want to try to remember as much as you can about a tree, shrub or flower that you’re trying find the name of.

This is a Kimberly Queen fern and, in her defense, what I believe that lady was thinking of. But still.
This is a Kimberly Queen fern and, in her defense, what I believe that lady was thinking of. But still.
Image courtesy of By Erusalio via Wikicommons.

That being said, sometimes there’s just no way that a nursery worker is going to be able to accurately name a plant based on a verbal depiction of it. One of the best screwy descriptions that I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard a lot) came from a woman who was a little irritated from the get-go by the fact that she couldn’t remember the name of the plant she had come in for.

“It’s a cactus,” she said. “Or a fern. It’s either a cactus or a fern. You know what I’m talking about, right?”

Honestly, I don’t think my expression helped with her irritation.

“I sincerely have no idea what kind of plant you could possibly be talking about,” I said. “Cacti and ferns are two very different types of plants.”

“They’re all over Vegas,” she said, her annoyance level clearly rising. “You see them everywhere.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know of a plant that could be either a cactus or a fern. I’m sorry,” I said, not really sorry at all.

She took off then, telling me that she’d know it when she saw it and then she’d show me what she was talking about. And she did. A little while later, she came back with a sago palm in her cart.


sago, cycad
This is a sago palm. A fun and fascinating fact to ponder: The sago palm is not really a palm, nor is it a cactus or a fern. It’s actually related to an ancient pine. And no, the lady in my story did not find this fact fun or fascinating.


Do you work with plants? Give me the best screwy plant description you’ve heard in the comments section below!


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