As a novice gardener, there may be some words you don’t know, but with plant biology a subject touched upon years ago at school, technical stuff I read now sometimes needs explaining. Here are a few basics you might come across as a beginner gardener. Forgive me if you know them all already.

Plant parts are a bit of a mystery, so let’s start there. There are 6 main parts to a plant - roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruits. Each part has a set of jobs to do to keep the plant healthy. The roots absorb water and minerals from the soil and anchor the plant in the ground. The stem supports the plant above ground and carries the water and minerals to the leaves. Leaves produce food for the plant by photosynthesis. Chlorophyll, the substance that gives plants their characteristic green colour, absorbs light energy. Ok so far.

Flowers - have 4 main parts: the petals, sepals, stamens, and carpels (aka pistils). Petals, I think we all know what they are, the pretty, coloured outer part of the flower. So, what’s a sepal? That’s the green bit that supports the flower petals when they are buds, but sometimes in plants with no petals, sepals function as petals. Stamens? Short answer is that it is the male reproductive part of a flower. A long slender stalk, the filament, with a two-lobed anther at the tip. (The anther consists of four saclike structures that produce pollen). Carpels? They are the female bits, which are responsible for the production of male and female gametes (the reproductive cells of a plant) for fertilisation.

Seeds and fruits - The seeds and fruits are basically the results of fertilisation of the plant. A fruit is the part of a flowering plant that contains the seeds, and the skin may be thin, tough, or hard. But some fruits, including nuts, are dry, and are basically the seeds of fruits. Angiosperms, also called flowering plants, have seeds that are enclosed within an ovary (usually a fruit), while gymnosperms have no flowers or fruits, and have unenclosed or ‘naked’ seeds on the surface of scales or leaves, like cones.

Now for some random technical stuff. Gosh, there are more terms than I have space for, so I will name just a few.

N-P-K: An abbreviation for the three main nutrients that are absolutely necessary for plants - nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). They are also known as ‘macronutrients,’ and the three numbers are commonly found on fertiliser labels.

Bolt: A term used to describe a plant that has gone to seed prematurely.

Chlorosis: A yellowing of the leaves due to lack of chlorophyll, nutrients or disease.

Rhizome: A fleshy underground stem or runner. Creeping grasses spread by rhizomes.

A genus is a rank in the biological classification. It stands above species, and below families. A genus can include more than one species. When biologists talk about a genus, they mean one or more species of plants that are closely related to each other.

Cultivar - Another name for a specific ‘variety’ of plant, selected for characteristics. For instance, Dazzling Blue and Curly Scotch are different cultivars (varieties) of kale.

Grafting - A technique when a cut portion of a plant is joined or fused to another – to grow together as one plant. For instance, to graft a specific variety of apple onto a different hardy apple rootstock. The resulting plant will produce fruit true to the graft used.

Lastly, an important one, Xeriscaping: To create a low-maintenance landscape with native plants and small or non-existent areas of turf grass. One of the primary goals of xeriscaping is to reduce landscape water use.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan