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Australian Cultivar Registration Authority

Iain Dawson

What does the ACRA do?

The objectives and purposes of the Australian Cultivar Registration Authority (ACRA) are:

  • To register, in accordance with the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, names of cultivars of Australian native plants;
  • To record the names of all cultivars of Australian native plants and hybrids between Australian and exotic plants (excluding Rhododendron and Orchidaceae);
  • To encourage the horticultural development of the Australian flora;
  • To assess and describe cultivars submitted for registration;
  • To cooperate with other organisations and individuals engaged in activities compatible with these objectives;
  • To maintain a register, together with correspondence files, herbarium specimens, photographic collections and any other necessary information on cultivars or groups defined above; and
  • To publish information on Australian plant cultivars.

Under the International Code for Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants, ACRA is the "International Registration Authority for Australian plant genera excluding those covered by other authorities". This includes all endemic genera and all predominantly Australian genera. We also register all Australian varieties accepted by the Australian Plant Breeders Rights Office. There are also some species that belong to genera that are not predominantly Australian for which we have accepted registrations. Helichrysum, Syzygium and Microlaena are some examples.

Some registered cultivars

Click on thumbnail images or plant names for larger images

Acacia 'Cascade'

Anigozanthos 'Regal Claw'
'Regal Claw'

Banksia 'Pygmy Possum
'Pygmy Possum'

Boronia 'Lorne Pride'
'Lorne Pride'

Callistemon 'Demesne Rowena'
'Demesne Rowena'

Chamelaucium 'Purple Pride'
'Purple Pride'

Correa 'Ivory Bells'
'Ivory Bells'

Crowea 'Festival'

Grevillea 'Honey Gem'
'Honey Gem'

Grevillea 'Poorinda Blondie'
'Poorinda Blondie'

Leptospermum 'Pink Cascade'
'Pink Cascade'

Pandorea 'Golden Showers'
'Golden Showers'

In recent years we have also accepted the role of advising the Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) Office. All applications for new indigenous varieties are submitted to ACRA for an assessment of whether or not they are already known. Under the PBR Act (1994) Section 44.2 "If an application for PBR in a plant variety is accepted and the plant variety is a variety of a species indigenous to Australia the Secretary must require supply of a satisfactory specimen plant of the variety to the herbarium". Under the Regulations the Secretary has designated the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) Herbarium as the place for this collection to be kept, and it is integrated into the cultivar collection kept by ACRA for administrative and user convenience. The herbarium collection will become increasingly important as an aid to checking the novelty of new cultivars.

Why do we need stable plant names?

The primary aim is to promote stable nomenclature. This helps nursery owners to protect their property rights, plant breeders can relate knowledge of genetics to plant material, taxonomists know what they are working with, communicators can have more confidence in the information they publish, retailers can source plant material, and the general public can link their purchases to published information on gardening. For the trade user we believe that the use of correct nomenclature should be part of quality assurance accreditation and we recommend that the approved (internationally accepted) name should appear on plant labels regardless of the trademarked or promotional name used. Registration of a cultivar does not give the applicant any intellectual property rights (unlike PBR), but it does prevent another individual obtaining exclusive rights through PBR (cultivar piracy is not unknown in Australia).

Why do plant names sometimes change?

Everyone complains when plant names are changed and it always causes some confusion so why does it happen? Names are changed for three reasons. Sometimes they change because a botanical taxonomist has reclassified the plant. This is usually based on more advanced knowledge about the relationships between plants and is often beneficial to breeders as more closely related plants are grouped together. However, it is common for reclassifications to be disputed among taxonomists and in the end it is only common usage that determines whether a new name has been accepted or not. With cultivated plants the cultivar name is fixed - it can't be changed for botanical reasons - but the botanical part of the name (genus, species) can be changed. A second reason to change a name is when the original name was incorrect. This is usually because the original specimen was misidentified, a common occurrence with new cultivated plants. Finally a name can be changed if it is not in accordance with the rules of nomenclature or if a mistake was made in spelling the name.

What is the ACRA?

ACRA is a committee formed by representatives of each of the major regional (State) botanic gardens, the Society for Growing Australian Plants, and the Nursery Industry Association of Australia. In addition we can appoint other members who we feel represent special interests or who have expertise that is of value to us. The office is maintained at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) in Canberra. ANBG provides office space and services, and the facilities of the Australian National Herbarium. Most of the work is done by volunteers. This includes the clerical, record keeping side of cultivar registration and mounting herbarium specimens.

How do you apply for registration of a plant name?

The actual registration procedure is quite straightforward. We need a fresh specimen (to check the description, to colour code, and finally to use as a herbarium specimen), a colour photograph (preferably a slide), some information about origins, cultivation experience, and distinguishing features, etc. This is covered by the application form, which will soon be available on our web page. The fee for this is $50, unless the application is by a SGAP study group. Fees are waived for SGAP study groups on condition that they write the description. The fee is to cover administrative costs and herbarium materials. We only accept applications for plants that will be sold to the public. Applications are assessed by our committee.

Who else can register plant names?

ACRA accepts the validity of names approved by the Plant Breeders Rights Office. In this case the name is attached to intellectual property rights vested in the cultivar. Some businesses try to register plant names as a trademark. This is specifically excluded under the Act governing trademarks in Australia. Trademarks are used to identify the trade source, not the cultivar. This practise also contravenes the International Rules of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Such names are therefore invalid.

How do you construct a cultivar name?

The following is a simplified guide to naming new cultivars. Full details can be obtained from the International Code for Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants, 1995. The name takes the form of the genus in Latin and italics (eg. Grevillea), plus the 'Cultivar Epithet' in a modern language and single quotation marks (eg. 'Robyn Gordon').

Some rules:

  • 'Cultivar Epithets' must have no more than 10 syllables or 30 letters.
  • All the words in a 'Cultivar Epithet' (except words, other than the first word, like 'the', 'a', 'at', 'or', 'by', etc) start with a capital letter.
  • Single quotes are used around the cultivar name.
  • The abbreviations "cv." or "var." are no longer valid.
  • Hybrids should not be designated with 'x' before the cultivar name.
  • The name must be more than common descriptive words.
  • Common names of plants cannot be used.
  • Nothing can be used that is likely to cause confusion (eg similarity to existing cultivar names within the denomination class, place names if more than one form of the plant exists there) or which exaggerate the merits of the cultivar.
  • Copyright or trademark words cannot be used (so business names are usually excluded).
  • Trade designations are not recognised as cultivar names.
  • Words like 'cross', 'hybrid', 'strain', 'selection', etc can't be used.
  • The cultivar epithet can only be used once within a denomination class (the genus).
  • If the taxon of the denomination class is re-assigned (ie. the genus part of the name changes) the 'Cultivar Epithet' stays the same (unless the name has already been used for that denomination class). Eg. Helichrysum 'Princess of Wales' becomes Bracteantha 'Princess of Wales'.
  • Grafted plants assume the name of the scion.
  • Authors names are not usually cited.

NB - these rules apply to cultivars introduced after 1995. Older cultivar names may not conform to them.

What about the species name?

The cultivar is the basic grouping, or taxon (= culton), for cultivated varieties. The word was coined by L. H. Bailey in 1923 and is now commonly used.

"By cultivated plants is meant plants raised in cultivation which differ sufficiently from their wild ancestors or, if taken into cultivation from the wild, are worthy enough of distinction from wild populations for horticultural purposes to merit special names" W. T. Stearn (1986)

Their naming is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, the current version of which was published in 1995. A new version should be published very soon (a draft was discussed at the Horticultural Congress in Toronto this year) . This is a separate system to that used for wild plants, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The point of contact between the ICBN and the ICNCP is normally the genus, which under the ICNCP is the denomination class (that is to say the cultivar name can only be used once within a genus). In other words, a cultivar is initially named in accordance with ICBN down to the level of genus. This is the only important point of contact between the two codes and this is why some people advocate not using the species name in cultivar names. The species name can be included in the cultivar name, but it is not necessary and there are a number of good reasons why it is preferable to not include it. These include:

  • The species is often not known or is only hypothesised.
  • The cultivar is a hybrid.
  • The species name is less stable than the genus name.
  • The species is not usually the denomination class so its use is superfluous and complicates filing systems unnecessarily.
  • Any information lost by not including it in the name is easily retrieved (the ACRA web page now has a list of cultivars with their assumed species and the entire cultivar database will soon be integrated into the Australian Plant Name Index).

The ICBN is a separate system so a particular taxon can conceivably have two names, one under each code, such as when a selection from a wild population is elevated to species or other rank. The ICBN name does not take precedence below the level of genus. Which code is used depends on the origin of the plants concerned and the purpose of naming them. The ICBN is essentially a hierarchical system that attempts to reflect natural evolution. ICNCP has been described as a system for labelling 'industrial products'. It is a non-hierarchical system.


A number of plant name resources are now available on the World Wide Web. These include:

  • ACRA - a listing of all Australian registered cultivars, most with descriptions and photographs, and links to other International Registration Authorities This site will soon have a list of most of the names used for Australian native cultivars (registered or not).
  • Plant Breeders Rights: This site has a list of all PBR protected varieties.
  • Australian Plant Name Index - a database listing the name and publication reference for every higher plant taxon in Australia, native or naturalised.
  • What's its name? - A concise database of plant names and name changes for Australia


International Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants (1995). International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants - 1995, Quarterjack Publishing, UK.

Stearn, W. T. (1986). Historical survey of the naming of cultivated plants, Acta Horticulturae, 182:19-28.

This article is an updated reproduction of a paper presented by Iain Dawson at the ASGAP 21st Biennial Seminar which was held in Canberra, ACT, 1 to 5 October 2001.

Iain is the Registrar of the Australian Cultivar Registration Authority, c/o Australian National Botanic Gardens, GPO Box 1777, Canberra, ACT 2601


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Australian Plants online - September 2002
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants