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What’s the difference between a cultivar, selection and a variety?

So far we have covered heirloom and landrace, mutation, crosses, and hybrids. For this series’s 3rd and final part, we dive deeper into cultivars, selections and varieties. These are all something we have seen when looking at varieties, and similar to heirloom and landrace, we often use them interchangeably. Ever wondered what the actual difference is though?

Cultivar

“Cultivar” is short for “cultivated variety.” A cultivar is a plant that has been selected and bred by humans for specific desirable characteristics, such as unique traits, improved yield, disease resistance, or aesthetic qualities.

Cultivars are created through deliberate human intervention, including selective breeding, hybridization, or genetic engineering. They are often given a specific name, followed by the abbreviation “cv.” or the word “cultivar” to distinguish them from wild plants or other varieties.

Key characteristics of cultivars:

  • They are deliberately bred or selected by humans for specific traits.
  • They are reproducible through seed propagation, vegetative propagation (such as cuttings or grafting), or tissue culture.
  • They are usually named and have a standardized naming convention.
  • They may exhibit uniformity in their traits across multiple generations.
  • They can be protected by intellectual property rights, such as plant patents or plant breeders’ rights.

Selection

In contrast to cultivars, “selection” refers to the process of choosing and propagating individual plants or seeds with desirable traits from a population of wild or cultivated plants.

Selection can occur naturally or be carried out by humans, and it is often a precursor to the development of cultivars. Through selection, plants with desirable characteristics, such as disease resistance, flavour, or productivity, are chosen and propagated to maintain those traits in subsequent generations.

Key characteristics of selections:

  • They are individuals or groups of plants chosen for their desirable traits.
  • They may not have a standardized naming convention or formal recognition.
  • They can be used as a starting point for further breeding or cultivation efforts.
  • They may have a narrower range of traits compared to cultivars.
Seedlings

Variety

Variety, in the context of plant taxonomy, refers to a naturally occurring or spontaneously arisen variation within a species. Varieties can arise through genetic mutations, natural selection, or geographic isolation.

They exhibit distinct traits or characteristics that differentiate them from other individuals of the same species. Varieties can be found in both wild and cultivated populations.

In the cultivated realm, varieties are often the result of long-term selection and domestication by humans. They can be propagated and maintained through seeds or other means. Varieties are designated by adding the abbreviation “var.” or the term “variety” after the species name (e.g., Coffea arabica var. bourbon denotes a variety of coffee called Bourbon).

Key characteristics of varieties:

  • Naturally occurring or spontaneously arisen variation within a species
  • Can arise through genetic mutations, natural selection, or isolation
  • Exhibits distinct traits differentiating them from others of the same species
  • Designated by adding “var.” or “variety” after the species name
  • Can be found in both wild and cultivated populations

In summary:

  • Cultivars are intentionally bred varieties, reproduce true-to-type, and have distinct names.
  • Selections are chosen individuals for specific traits and are not given unique names.
  • Varieties are naturally occurring or domesticated variations within a species, designated by adding “var.” or “variety” after the species name.