The origin of the term “cultivar” arises from the need to distinguish between wild plants and those with characteristics that have arisen in cultivation. The word cultivar means “cultivated variety”. Therefore, cultivars were selected and cultivated by humans. Cultivars generally occur as ornamentals and food crops – think about Malus ‘Granny Smith’ or Malus ‘Red Delicious’ which are cultivars of apples propagated by cuttings or grafting. Popular ornamental garden plants like roses, camellias, daffodils, and rhododendrons are cultivars produced by careful breeding and selection for flower color or form. 

Some cultivars originate as sports or mutations on plants. Other cultivars could be hybrids of two plants. Many of the dwarf conifers in the Smith Mossman Garden originated as witch’s brooms, a branch that grows differently than the rest of the plant, often in a tight, compact manner. Cuttings are taken and a new cultivar is named. 

The naming of cultivars is an important aspect of cultivated plant taxonomy, and the correct naming of a cultivar is prescribed by the Rules and Recommendations of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (the ICNCP, commonly known as the Cultivated Plant Code). A cultivar is given a cultivar name, which consists of the scientific Latin botanical name followed by a cultivar epithet. The cultivar epithet is enclosed by single quotes. Cultivar epithets published before January 1, 1959 were often given a Latin form and can be readily confused with the specific epithets in botanical names; after that date, newly coined cultivar epithets must be in a modern vernacular language to distinguish them from botanical epithets.