Entering plant parenthood can also mean entering a world that seems to have a whole different language. When you're reading an article or talking to an enthusiastic plant parent, words are thrown in that you've probably never heard of before. And worse, they aren't explained! 🤦
We're here to decode some plant terminology for you. Look, you don't need a degree in botany or anything. You just need a few straightforward definitions under your belt, and you'll be ready to talk and read all things plant-related without having to look up every other word.
We categorized these definitions by plant anatomy, plant care, and things that happen to plants (inflicted by us or not). All terms are defined with a focus on houseplants—we created this guide to be most relevant for indoor plant babes.
In this section we'll cover terms related to a plant's anatomy and their physical traits. We'll keep it simple and give you the specifics on why it's a useful term to know.
Roots. They're in the ground? Not always the case when they are adventitious. These roots come from areas you wouldn't expect. This happens purely for the survival of the plant. The roots can form from stems or leaves, depending on the plant. It's a little like a back up plan—if a section of the plant gets detached from the main plant, it can create its own roots to continue surviving.
They're also a common occurrence for underground stem-like anatomy, like rhizomes, corms, and tubers, making it possible to separate or divide these plants from one interconnected plant into many.
One of the most common adventitious roots are aerial roots. These roots emerge above ground from stem or leaves and are often used by the plant to climb! By sending out roots that can grab onto a tree, the plant is able to find their way up, up, up! If you notice these funny roots on your plant, you can gently tuck them back into the soil or consider training them to grow up a moss or coir pole.
These are what make a cactus scientifically classified as a cactus and distinct from other succulents. They are the tiny bumps that grow into clusters of very spiky spines. Areoles are essentially modified branches and the spines are modified leaves! 🤯
Araceae, Arum, Aroid
The family of monocots known as Araceae is also commonly known as the Arum family and its members are called Aroids. This family is distinguished by producing flowers on a type of inflorescence called a spadix and partly surrounded by a spathe. Sorry, we know that's a lot of potentially puzzling terms in a row! Keep scrolling for definitions!
Many of the most popular houseplants belong to this family—including Monstera, Pothos, ZZ Plants, Alocasia, Caladium, Dieffenbachia, Philodendron, Peace Lilys, Anthuriums, and many more!
A bud is a good reason to get excited as a plant parent! This means new growth! You'll be able to identify buds by seeing a little swollen pod on your plant either at the tippy-top (known as a terminal or apical bud) or from the main stem right next to another leaf (known as an axillary or lateral bud). Sometimes, you'll see a protective sheath around them—this gives the plant a safe place to develop the new growth. 🐣
An onion is a perfect example of a bulb. It's round and multi-layered with a papery skin on the outside. Its main job is to store nutrients for the plant, but it can multiply by creating another bulb from the base of the old bulb! While an onion probably isn't your first choice in a houseplant, there are quite a few popular houseplants with bulbs or bulb-like structures.
When you think about a callus on a plant, think about the callus you are familiar with first! People develop calluses on their hands and feet when they repeatedly use or damage that area. It's the skin's way of "toughening up," right?
Well, when you're thinking about it in terms of your houseplant, it's quite similar. If there's a cut or any type of damage on their stem, plants can create a hardened area to seal themselves off from further loss of sap and prevent infection. Super useful when embarking on certain types of propagation from cuttings that would otherwise be very susceptible to rot.
Caudex and Caudiciform
Somewhat similar in appearance to a bulb, but it is generally visible above ground and is instead a plump, swollen trunk or stem. A caudex is also used to store water and nutrients. Any plant with a caudex can be called caudiciform.
Popular houseplants with a caudex include the Ponytail Palm and Desert Rose!
The thing in plants that makes them green! It's this pigment that allows a plant to convert sunlight into energy during photosynthesis. 🧪
Corms are also similar to bulbs. They're a bit flatter and not multi-layered like a typical bulb, but do still have the papery skin. Just like any bulb, their job is to store water and nutrients for the plant.
Some of our favorite houseplants like Alocasia and Oxalis triangularis have corms. An older corm can produce little baby corm offsets that you can then separate as an entirely new plant!
The shortened form of "dicotyledon". Dicots are one of the two groups of flowering plants.
A dicot is distinguished by its growth pattern of producing two seed leaves (as opposed to one, which is known as monocot).
Many of our tree-like houseplants are dicots—think of the Rubber Tree (and other ficus friends) or Begonia and you'll notice two leaves side by side emerging at every node. Surprisingly, cacti are dicots, too! Much harder to tell from just looking at one, though. 👀
An epiphyte is any plant that can absorb nutrients and moisture through the air, rain, or any debris that accumulates around them. These plants generally grow on other larger plants in the mossy nooks between branches or on rocks! Many of our most popular houseplants are epiphytes, like Monstera and Pothos, but also orchids and some cactus, as well.
Plant species are classified in order of genus, family, and group. We most frequently encounter the genus in the scientific name of a plant, but the family is the broader collection of plants that share similar features. Araceae is a family of plants known as aroids.
When you hear the word "frond," you may think of fern or palm fronds, but it can be applied to other plants as well. This special type of leaf is usually quite large and heavily divided, giving them a feathery appearance. They are essentially compound leaves in that many smaller leaflets make up the whole leaf, or frond.
Genus is the classification above species and below family. This is the first name you'll see in the scientific name of a plant—Monstera deliciosa is of the genus Monstera.
An inflorescence is the entire flowering structure of a plant. This can look radically different from plant to plant, but this structure consists of flowers, bracts, stems, and stalks.
A term used to describe leaf shapes with divisions, or clefts, along the edge. For example, a Fiddle Leaf Fig has leaves that terminate in very large lobes with smaller lobes along the sides, leading to both its common name of "Fiddle Leaf" and its scientific classification of "lyrata" (shaped like a lyre).
The shortened form of "monocotyledon". Monocots are one of the two groups of flowering plants.
A monocot is distinguished by its growth pattern of producing a single seed leaf (as opposed to two, which is known as dicot).
Many many of our houseplants fall into this group! Monstera, Alocasia, Philodendron, Dieffenbachia, Calathea, Bird of Paradise and more. It may be helpful to think of monocots growing like grass (because grass is a monocot) in clumps or clusters and with each new leaf emerging from a sheath at the center of the plant. 🌾
A node is a point where a bud, leaf, or branch attaches to the plant's main stem. It's easily identified as this, but you may also see some other signs of a node, like protruding knobs or aerial roots, scars from a fallen leaf, or a clear linear division around the stem.
Essentially, a node is indicative of a "new section" of a plant.
Offset or Plantlet
Have you seen Spider Plants that are doing really well? Sometimes, there looks to be what is a mini spider on the end of a very long stem. That's an offset! It's basically a clone of the mother plant. Many houseplants produce offsets when they're happy, like Pilea, Aloe, and cacti.
A term used to describe leaf shapes that have multiple lobes or leaflets radiating from a central point at the leaf base, giving them a palm-like appearance. The leaves of Umbrella Plants and Money Trees are palmate. 🖐
We know stem, we know leaf, but what's the thing the connects the leaf to the stem? That's a petiole! It's commonly also referred to simply as a leaf stem.
These are some of the terms used for the little baby plants that some plants can create by sending out runners (stolon) and rhizomes, or directly on other specialized stem anatomy, like corms. These are all genetic clones of the mother plant and, once established, can be separated to create a whole new plant.
Rhizomes are horizontal underground stems. They can send out shoots for a new plant and often have adventitious roots to support the new growth.
Often confused as a root, rhizomes are actually modified stems.
They are typically much thicker than roots and have a fleshy or woody appearance—think ginger (it's a rhizome)!
Popular houseplants with rhizomes included ZZ Plants and Snake Plants, which is what makes them so easy to divide into multiple separate plants when the mood strikes or they're getting overly crowded in their container.
ZZ Plants actually go a step further and have tuberous rhizomes! Not to be confused with actual tubers, these special rhizomes are adapted to swell to tuberous proportions in order to store nutrients and water.
More technically known as stolon. These are specialized stems that can "offset" to create new plants. For example, remember that Spider Plant offset we mentioned—the long stem is a runner and the baby spider plant growing on the end is a pup. Mint and strawberries grow this way as well! 🍓
A flowering spike! Typically thick and fleshy, surrounded by a spathe, or modified leaf. The entire spike is covered in very many, very tiny flowers. All plants in the Araceae family produce their flowers this way.
A spathe often looks like a large petal of a flower. If you are familiar with Peace Lilies or Anthuriums, you know the look—but that striking pop of color is not a petal at all, but a modified leaf more broadly known as a bract. The pointy thing in the middle is made up of many teeny tiny flowers and is known as a spadix.
Species is the most specific classification of a plant, below genus. This is the second name you'll see in the scientific name of a plant—Monstera deliciosa is of the genus Monstera and species deliciosa.
This is the part of the plant that supports roots and new growth. It's typically the main part of the plant that "shoots" up from the ground. However, in some plants, it's easy to confuse a stem with a root or leaf! The stem is essential to the plant. It distributes the nutrients and water that the roots absorb to the rest of the plant.
A more technical term for a runner—the modified stems that run horizontally above ground to produce entirely new plants (sometimes called pups, clones, or offsets).
The best example of a tuber is a potato! A tuber is similar to a bulb in that it's fleshy and underground. However, tubers are defined as portions of the stem that have swelled over time. Unlike bulbs, they don't create new roots. Instead, they produce "eyes" that can create stems for new plants.
If you've ever forgotten about a bag of potatoes, you probably know exactly what we're talking about. Those potatoes have grown eyes and shoots out of them and look totally alien! Yep, that's a classic tuber.
Some of our houseplants will have these tubers, such as some Begonias and Caladium, so it's good to know what you're dealing with, especially when you go to repot and discover these strange "growths". 😳 Don’t worry—it’s completely normal.
This is a general term that refers to the markings on a plant's leaves that are different colors. Have you seen those IG famous plants that have green and white leaves in various paint-splash patterns? That's variegation. However, there are actually a few distinct types of variegation—it can emerge through a random genetic mutation or it has been baked into the DNA of the species or cultivar through selective breeding.
In some plants, like those oft-coveted Monsteras, the variegation can only be preserved through stem cuttings and even then it's not entirely guaranteed to result in an exciting specimen. In some cases, they may even revert to their solid green form. Plants with large areas of white on their leaves are also generally much slower to grow because they don't produce as much chlorophyll—the green pigment they need to convert sunlight into energy. All that to say, these babies are hard to come by. 🤑
Many other variegated plants aren't one-off mutants, but naturally patterned and subsequently selectively bred as cultivars.
You'll see this type of variegation on most varieties of Calathea and other Marantaceae. A subset of this type of natural variegation is blister or reflective variegation—this occurs when small air pockets develop between the lower and upper portions of the leaf, creating transparent pockets that give the plant a striking, high contrast pattern (like a Satin Pothos). This can even occur on the veins of leaves—like on an Alocasia Polly!
Plant Care or Soil Related
When researching plant care, you may come across terms that can be pretty puzzling. I mean... Vermiculite? Coir? Orchid Bark??? This section will cover many soil additions and some more general plant care terms that can sound totally bizarre on first encounter.
Heat treated charcoal, or activated charcoal, is a common soil additive. It can absorb excess moisture and prevent fungal or bacterial growth. It can also act as a defense to overwatering, but it’s not magic. You will often see this as a recommendation for pots without drainage. And while it may be making the best of a bad situation, we stand firmly on team drainage holes! 🙏
Coconut coir is a common soil additive and can be used to create a climbing surface for vining plants. It's a fiber derived from the cast-off “hairs” of coconut husks. It helps retain water (up to 10 times what it weighs!) and increases aeration in the soil. It comes in a few different forms, like chips, pith, and more.
These are the primary nutrients that plants need to thrive, including nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen helps plants photosynthesize by encouraging healthy foliage. Phosphorus helps promote healthy root development, flowering, and fruit. Potassium helps plants regulate water intake to resist drought conditions or other stresses.
The purpose of fertilizing is to replenish these key nutrients. The balance of nutrients in a fertilizer is typically listed in order of N-P-K.
These are other nutrients a plant may appreciate in smaller quantities, including calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese.
An oil derived from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), neem oil has many varied uses, but is particularly useful for houseplants as an insecticidal spray that is entirely natural and non-toxic.
We will continue to sing the praises of neem oil until it's in the hands of every plant parent! 📣
Often used in potting mix for orchids, but useful for many houseplants, these small shards of bark (usually fir or pine) provide plenty of aeration and improve drainage (the bigger the pieces, the greater the improvement). The bark itself can also hold quite a bit of water, improving overall moisture retention.
A common component of potting mix, this is sphagnum moss that has fallen into a peat bog and decayed. Even in this state, it retains its sponge-like qualities and holds on to water well. It's often used on its own for sensitive plants or the developing roots in propagations.
The tiny white balls that look a bit like styrofoam and you see in most potting mixes is perlite. It's a volcanic mineral that helps to aerate the soil and allows for swift drainage.
Potting Mix or Medium
The medium in which your plant will take root and live. This can be anything from sphagnum moss to a special kind of expanded clay pellet, but most commonly, a carefully calibrated potting mix with many components.
While we often refer to potting mix colloquially as "soil", there is rarely any capital S-Soil in potting mixes.
In fact, most indoor potting mixes are considered "soil-less", only containing peat moss or coir, orchid bark, vermiculite or perlite, and sometimes worm castings.
Pumice is also from the volcanic world! 🌋 As lava cools, gas bubbles are trapped creating tiny holes, which makes pumice a super lightweight and porous soil addition. This helps with soil aeration, alleviates soil compaction, and improves drainage.
A supplemental hormone used to encourage propagations (typically cuttings) to produce roots. Available as a powder, liquid, or gel.
All plants produce a natural rooting hormone, but every species produces a different amount.
So for some stubborn plants, using a supplemental rooting hormone can help make sure your propagation is a success.
This dried out moss is quite sponge-like, helping retain water but preventing sogginess. It’s often used on its own for air layering or as top dress (making the top of your soil look fancy).
Top dress is simply the addition of something on top of your plant's soil. This can mean topping off with more soil or a fertilizer, or it can mean covering up the soil to make your plant look more put together. 💅
There are plenty of options for this, like pebbles or moss. But it's important to make sure you are choosing something that will allow the soil to absorb moisture and still breathe.
This is another volcanic mineral—a brownish flake that can feel kind of spongy. It helps retain moisture and enhances the structure of the soil, allowing for healthier roots.
Things You Do or Things That Happen to Plants
This section will cover things you can do to plants, like creating more, and things that can happen to plants. We'll talk through some of the most common terms to get you up to speed!
Air layering is a type of propagation. You can do this without cutting off a piece of your plant until you're sure the propagation will be a success. Have you ever seen a stem or branch touching the ground and creating roots of its own? Air layering essentially recreates this natural process.
You’ll need sphagnum moss, a knife, and plastic wrap. All you have to do is cut a little bit into the stem of the plant (close to a node), thoroughly moisten the moss and wrap it around the cut area. Then, cover with the plastic wrap (you may need some twist ties or twine to secure it) and wait. If the moss is drying out, you can unwrap and give it a good spritz.
Typically, within a few weeks or months, you’ll have a developing root system. Now you can cut off that whole portion of the plant, pot up (moss and all), and there you have it—a brand new plant! 🪴
The Japanese art of forming the miniature likeness of a full size tree. This is achieved through various techniques, including pot confinement and pruning.
There are many ways to water a plant, but bottom watering is one of our favs!
It allows the plant to soak up just what it needs and is a great way to give your plant the right amount of water every time.
All you need to do is pour water into a tub or tray of some kind, even the plant's own drainage tray will work. The drainage holes allow the soil to take up all the moisture the plant needs. This can take around 30-45 minutes, but you'll know the plant has had its fill when the top of the soil is starting to feel moist. You can dump out any remaining water that hasn't been absorbed or use it for another plant!
If you're anything like us, you probably have fallen in love with a decorative pot only to find out there aren't drainage holes!? While that makes it a dealbreaker on its own (unless you drill your own holes), it can make for a great cachepot!
A cachepot is simply a pot within a pot.
It doesn't actually hold your plant's roots and potting mix, instead it holds and covers the practical pot.
This is great for a plant that you've just brought home from the nursery as all plants will want a chance to adapt to their new environment and repotting right off the bat will double down on their stressors.
The word cultivar is a contraction of “cultivated variety.” It is a particular variety of a plant that has been found in nature—it may actually be a mutation or accident that doesn't occur frequently in the wild. But once found and selected, a clever human can cultivate it by propagating more of the same plant. You'll know if a plant is a natural variety when indicated with a “var” in the name. If you come across a cultivar, you'll see a “cv.” or single quotations around the name of the variety.
Dormant or Dormancy
When a plant is no longer receiving the amount of light it needs to grow, it will fall into a state of dormancy. 😴 This can occur naturally in the winter (when the sun's arc has dropped to a lower angle, resulting in fewer hours of daylight) or in indoor spaces that receive very little natural light. Dormancy is normal and expected for most houseplants in the winter.
However, only some plants are tolerant of the more-or-less permanent dormancy produced by low light conditions.
If you notice droplets of water on the tips of your plant's leaves or small water spots on the surfaces around your plant, this is likely due to a process called guttation, or the expulsion of water from the pores of a plant.
During the day, plants take up water from their roots and distribute it to every leaf. But at night, when the hot sun is not actively drying out the soil and air around a plant, the plant may end up with more water than they can handle! So, in response, the plant may force a bit of water out to relieve the pressure and prevent their cells from bursting.
The euphemistic term used for the waste that certain pests, like aphids and scale, leave behind when they feed on a plant. It's a sticky sweet substance that can attract ants and lead to sooty mold. If you notice this on your plants, definitely be on the lookout for the culprit! 🔎
A hybrid is the creation of an entirely new plant by cross-pollinating plant varieties. It can take a lot of time and patience but eventually it leads to a brand new plant that contains characteristics of two (or more) plants in one! The plant breeder generally owns the rights to that hybrid so they can market and sell it. You’ll know a plant is a hybrid if the full name of your plant has an “x” in it.
The Japanese art of growing plants in a decorative, moss-covered ball of potting mix. Sometimes also called string gardens or Japanese moss balls, these displays can be suspended in groups to create a floating garden effect.
Leggy (AKA Etiolated)
Plants aren't predictable, to say the least! Your favorite plants may become a bit floppy and sloppy from time to time! 🥴 This is referred to as being "leggy." The more technical term for this is "etiolated." Most often, a plant gets leggy because they're trying to stretch towards the light, leading to long, stretched-out growth that makes the whole plant look a bit sparse rather than full and bushy.
Oedema or Edema
A condition caused by excess amounts of water in a plant's leaf. Oedema can occur when you have an inconsistent watering pattern (like long periods of drought followed by large quantities of water). Basically the leaf cells don't have the flexibility to expand with the drastic influx of water, so they burst.
This condition is exceptionally common among Fiddle Leaf Figs—often most apparent in new growth that emerges covered in reddish-brown freckles.
Photosynthesis is the way the plants make their food—it's a metabolic process. And it all starts with light. Light allows a plant to convert carbon dioxide and water into energy (as in food) and as a byproduct, release oxygen out into the world.
Many plants have the ability to turn or stretch their stems and leaves toward the best source of light. For this reason, you may want to rotate your plants on a regular basis for even growth in all directions.
Propagation is the act of creating a new plant from an existing plant. You can propagate in many ways depending on your plant's characteristics—you can use a cutting from the stem or leaf, divide between rhizomes, or use pups/clones/offsets.
Root Bound (AKA Pot Bound)
When a plant is growing well, the root system grows in order to gather more nutrients and absorb more water. Eventually, the roots will run out of room and start circling around the pot, looking for somewhere else to go. 🌀
When a plan is in this state it is considered "rootbound," or "pot bound."
This is not a problem for most plants as long as you notice it and repot to a larger pot. However, if you ignore it for too long, the plant may begin to decline because their roots have pushed out all the available soil that would normally retain water and provide nutrients.
Root rot can be the death knell for many plants. 🪦 It's usually the result of persistent over-watering. Allowing the roots of your plant to sit in water, not only suffocates them, it's the perfect breeding ground for fungal or bacterial growth that will begin to rot the roots.
If you suspect you've been over-watering for some time, you should definitely take a peek at the roots.
If you see black, mushy roots instead of healthy, white roots, you're dealing with root rot and will have to undertake a process of pruning back all the rotted areas and repotting your plant.
Standard or Tree-Form
Have you ever gone on the hunt for a Fiddle Leaf Fig and only found what look to be small shrubs or straight columns? That's because the FLF isn't "standard", or tree-form. Time and effort go into training these plants to branch out and take on their stately tree-like look. It's essentially something akin to Bonsai because the plants we keep at home are juveniles that will never reach the heights of their relatives in the wild.
If you want a more laid back plant parent experience, we suggest buying an FLF in a state close to how you'd like your plant to look in the long-term, that way your care is more about straightforward maintenance rather than full-on transformation.
Re: Your Plant Vocab
As we said, we don't expect you to memorize this list or anything. However, having a good understanding of the basic terminology and a solid resource to reference will help you along at any point in your houseplant journey. Oh and brownie points every time you can fit these into an everyday convo. Kidding! ...Kind of? 😉