Truth in Captioning

– Posted in: Garden Photography

In my October 22 entry, in my haste to show off the first “spring” narcissus in my garden I included the first Camellia flower of the season too. I said it was C. sasanqua ‘Cleopatra’ and one reader commented it did not look like what she expected. It was mis-labeled.
Camellia sasanqua ‘Cleopatra’
Camellia sasanqua ‘Apple Blossom’

Here is the actual ‘Cleopatra’ now blooming in my garden
camellia sasanqua real ‘Cleopatra’

I don’t want to use the excuse: “it was only a blog entry” to apologize for my mistake but will say (to preserve my credibility among my publishers) I would never have sent the photo to a publisher with such haste. Promise to myself and Gardening Gone Wild readers: be more careful.

This is an opportunity, though, to warn gardeners about having too much faith in captions seen in publications. Before I explain a little, behind the scenes, dirty little secret of publishing, I alert my trusting readers that mis-labeling is a rare occurence. In my last entry on Stuffed Photos, about garden photos that were entirely created just for the camera, too many of you assumed too many photos are staged. From those comments it seems you will never again believe a garden photo is real. While the camera always lies for the photographer’s purpose, it does not mean the gardens are a lie to start with. OK, OK, move on….

Most all of you know garden photos are sometimes mis-labeled. How does this happen ? Doesn’t anyone check these things ? In truth, the better publishers check very hard; many ask for critical review, employ special editors, and reject many photos for insufficent captioning. If you want to be a professional garden photographer you best get acquainted with botanic latin and be able to back up your sources when an editor calls to say “are you sure ?”.

Photo captioning and cross referencing is the most tedious part of my work but it must be done or my photos are worthless in the market I most need. While many garden photographers are gardeners themselves we are usually working in someone else’s garden. We may love gardening but are not horticulturists. If a homewoner/gardener gives us the wrong plant name or cultivar, we may occassionally question the ID for the sake of conversation, but will not write down what we think it is as opposed to what the gardener tells us.

Garden photographers will also depend on labels we see in gardens, nurseries, and arboretums. One day I will rant about cultivar labels that some nurseries create just to have their own name on a patented plant, but suffice it to say nursery labels are not always accurate either. My own worst and in retrospect, laughable mistakes have come from believing botanic garden labels.

In my early years of photographing in botanic gardens, before I knew the difference between a Pennisetum and a Penstemon, I associated every label with the plant closest to it. I would even seek out the labels with the most unusual names to get photos of rarely photographed plants. More than once, I captioned a fairly ordinary plant with an exotic label.

I remember a truly epiphanic moment realizing that when bulbs go dormant in botanic gardens the label is still there. It is really embarrassing to have an editor say “We really love this early spring bulb garden photo but where are Dahlias we thought you were sending?”.

So, if you see a questionable caption for a garden photo, it is probably not the writer’s fault, it may not even be the rookie copy editor’s fault, it may not even be the photographer’s fault, it may just be a mistake with no-one at fault.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Carol November 18, 2007, 5:39 am

I agree, labeling in a garden can be quite tricky, and can lead anyone astray. I went to our local garden and found a vinca labeled as a zinnia. The plant and the label were the only things in the container, so it was clearly a mistake. But I wondered how many gardeners were going to go home and starting calling their annual vinca “zinnias”.

Lisa at Greenbow November 18, 2007, 6:31 am

I don’t get upset seeing a plant mislabled. It happens, even on blogs. I just feel sorry for people that know nothing about plants purchasing a plant at a nursery that tells them the wrong name. Then they proudly show off a plant to a person that knows what it truly is and get a lesson in botany in their own garden. Such a let down.

Kim November 18, 2007, 7:27 pm

You’re very right… I’ve leafed through gardening books and said things like, “Salvia ‘Caradonna’ my behind! Those flower stems are not dark purple!” (Okay, since we’re all about truth here I admit. I didn’t say, “behind.” lol.)

The nice thing about blogs is their fluidity. You can go back and double-check and edit your mistakes, or make a note in the comments or in a new post that someone was correct, you had misidentified it. But printing and books seem a whole lot more permanent, no?

Either way, thanks for the correction and for the insight into book captioning. 🙂

Kris at Blithewold November 20, 2007, 7:20 am

I live in perennial fear of mislabeling and have giant reference books practically attached to my lap at all times. I try to get (correct!) labels on all the plants in the gardens. I inevitably miss the ones people really want to know about and sometimes forget seasonally inappropriate ones that misidentify the ivy as a colchicum (for instance). And I try (pretty hard) to correctly i.d. the photos I use in the blog. It’s all true though – sometimes it’s wrong and it’s up to anyone who visits to set me straight. Thank goodness for erasers and the delete button!

Saxon Holt November 20, 2007, 11:47 am

I loved hearing Kris say a garden tag for colchicum could be an excuse for misidentifying an ivy. I too live with reference books on my lap when I am entering my photo captions into the computer. I do this not just out of fear for getting it wrong for a publisher but because I need to know. I feel like the plant is an orphan until I can name it properly and that I have made a new friend every time some new plant is, not just photographed but, captioned correctly.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 20, 2007, 8:25 pm

I go on faith that what I have in my garden is what the label says it is, unless it is obviously not. A prime example is the Clematis I bought (out of flower) that was labeled ‘Ramona.’ When I finally bloomed, the flowers were white, clearly not the blue of ‘Ramona.’ With less obvious mistakes, they continue under the erroneous name until something leads me to believe that it is not the plant as named. Consequently, I grant great leeway to those who ID plants for publication. Sometimes it’s just not possible to properly ID a plant, regardless of how much checking & research 1 has done.

jodi December 1, 2007, 12:27 am

I somehow missed this post earlier. One thing botanic gardens are up against is people stealing their labels (it happens at all of the gardens I know of–maybe electrified labels are the answer? 🙂
A friend of mine who is an elderly and well respected plant breeder has plants around his property that sometimes have curious writing on them. (when you’ve been breeding plants for +50 years, sometimes crosses get lost). So visitors to his garden may encounter the following:

NOLA: No Label
LOLA: Lost Label
IDIIK: I’m Damned if I Know!

I sometimes make reference to those on my blog postings, when I have a plant–from my own garden, often–the species or cultivar name of which has run away into the twilight zone. To err is human, even in garden photography.

Saxon Holt December 5, 2007, 2:32 pm

jodi – loved hearing your story of the elderly friend. Maybe we can lobby some International Nomenclature Agency – Botanic Division to use IDIIK as accepted labeling…. I may very well start using it myself.

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