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Labelling our Collections - Results of a Survey

Volume 3 Number 3 - December 1999
Rhoda Maurer

"Perhaps the best description of the ideal plant label is... it is easy to read but unobtrusive, cheap but indestructible, accurate, informative, and concise, easy to install but difficult to steal, and individual in style and materials without being tempting as a souvenir".

This survey on labelling techniques used by gardens and arboreta was undertaken while the author was a trainee with the Royal Horticultural Society, London, U.K. The main aim was to identify the materials and processes used and why they were chosen. Questionnaires were sent to 120 gardens in 18 countries and there was a 77.5% response (see Table 1).

Table 1 - Summary of Respondents by Country

 Australia 1 France 
 3 Scotland, U.K. 3 
 Canada 3 Germany  4 Singapore  1
 Chile 1 Ireland  1 Spain  2
 Denmark  1 Japan  1 Switzerland  1
 England, U.K.  48 New Zealand 5 U.S.A. 18
 Finland  1 Norway  1  Wales, U.K.  3






Types of Labels

Table 2 shows the frequency that information appears on labels in the surveyed gardens. This information includes both accession labels (garden use) and display labels (public use). Some gardens use display labels for both purposes.

Table 2 Information on labels (%)

 Scientific name
 Common name66.7
 Accession number45.8
 Family name
 Wild collection data22.2





The materials of labels, stakes and ties was surveyed with comparisons in production techniques for accession, display and combination labels (see Table 3).

Accession Labels

Embossed aluminium was the most commonly reported material (27.2%) for labels serving the sole purpose of recording accession information. This label usually has a hole in one or both ends of the label to feed wire through for attachment to a branch. In the case of larger trees, several gardens use a combination of screws and springs to attach the label directly to the trunk allowing for some growth of the tree. Only three gardens reported using metal staking methods for accession labels. In all instances this stake is made of heavy gauge brass or aluminium wire that is bent at one end into a loop where the label is hung, sometimes secured with a wire attachment.

Display Labels

Plant Label in South AfricaParticipants reported that 64.2% of display labels are engraved plastic. With some frequency, participants listed Metalphoto® and engraved aluminium display labels but no reports of ceramic or wood labels were reported.

Most engraved plastic display labels are riveted onto aluminium stakes (43.4%). Other metals comprised 38.1% of staking materials. One garden has designed an animal proof model; this uses an engraved plastic label which is riveted to a galvanized steel stake having a slightly larger mounting surface for the label and an additional leg for support. Of the wooden staking methods (11.8%), the most elaborate method found was a post (4x4 ins 10x10 cm) sunk into concrete well below ground level. Labels are then attached to a sloping surface with screws.

For those instances where labels served both functions, an engraved plastic label with aluminium stake was most commonly reported combination of materials.

Table 3 Material of label and stake

 Material           Label (%)       Stake (%)
  Zinc 2.57.9 
 Brass 0 2.6
 Aluminium 27.2 43.4
 Copper 0 3.9
 Steel 0 5.3
 Plastic 64.2 6.6
 Wood 0 11.8
 Other metal
 6.2 18.4








The life expectancy of all reported materials averaged 3 or more years with the major limiting factors being weathering, human or other animal damage and theft. Without dividing materials into price categories, the average cost of a display label at surveyed gardens is £1.50 not including labour. However, some costs reported were calculated to be as much as £10.00 including labour. Other factors which influence the choice of labelling method are the ease of fitting into an existing system as most important (27.6%) with aesthetics, budget, educational effectiveness and practicality being factors more specific to each institution's goals.

The Labelling Process

In a majority of surveyed gardens, labels are produced on site (68.2%) and collection records are managed on computer databases (68.7%). Yet, these systems are not all directly linked to a label-making machine and label production often becomes a two or more step process contributing to hidden expenses and the opportunity for error.

Of the participants who use computers to maintain their collections, 27.1% use one computer that is linked directly to a label-making machine; the data is only entered once. Another 20.8% use another computer to produce labels; the data is not transferable from the first point of entry and therefore must be entered twice. An additional 20.8% reported that they use computers to manage their collections but manually produce labels. Interestingly, 27.1% reported that the entire system, including record keeping, is done manually.

The collection maintenance and label production process is done by paid staff at over 66.7% of surveyed gardens with 31.4% of the gardens reporting 40 or more hours per week allocated. The remaining 35.3% of gardens reported part-time hours. Additional hours are contributed by volunteers (26.5%) and students (6.9%) at participating gardens.


Thanks to the generosity of participants, many labels and additional remarks were received with completed questionnaires. The following commentary about materials, uses of labels in specific situations and links with educational programs arose from examination of these samples.

Some plastics are certainly more UV stable and weather resistant than others, but these usually have a reflective finish to which make them difficult to read. Matte finishes are not as UV stable and textured surfaces create an opportunistic environment for soil collection and algae growth. Reverse engraving solves this problem, but only if the seal between the two surfaces is watertight.

Although many colours are available, black or white seem to be the best choices as others fade more quickly. Brass tarnishes nicely if aesthetics is a chief concern. Aluminium is soft and can scratch easily although it is longer lasting than plastics. Metalphoto® labels seem to allow the most successful inclusion of design elements although no samples of laser engraved labels were received.

Other metals are not generally recommended as they have problems with rust or leaching. Matte finished stainless steel would certainly last for years, be UV and scratch resistant and offer an attractive surface for lettering. However, the price is prohibitive for most gardens.

It was evident from respondents comments that difficulties arise in labelling different groups of plants, including annuals, perennials and borders, so that information is provided to the public yet the area is kept from looking like a miniature graveyard. Some gardens have used graphical signs. These are generally plans or elevations of planting areas with a key to identify each plant. These are best suited to permanent, long-lived collections such as trees and shrubs and not the dynamic collections of perennials or annuals. These "labels" are expensive to replace and soon become outdated, therefore setting the stage for confusion rather than clarification to the visitor.

A successful example of labelling herbaceous material is by use of an accession label consisting of an embossed metal (aluminium or brass) attached to a stake of similar material embedded into the ground so that the label is just above soil level in close proximity to the plant. The label is soon disguised by growth most of the year and since these labels are hidden from public view are not likely souvenir material; they can save loss of a herbaceous plant to its corresponding collection records. In some gardens annuals are labelled by using laser printed sticky-back labels mounted onto plastic blanks of their display labels. Attachment to trees must be monitored since girdling by wires and imbedding of labels are quite possible.

Additionally, it became increasingly evident from the results of the survey that gardens who use labels as both accession and display labels also reported the most difficulty with loss of label, plant and record system connections. Utilising separate accession and display labels keeps the accession number with the plant in event of theft, damage or vandalism to the display label ensuring the link between plants and their collections records. Another benefit of this practice is that display labels can be re-used for different accessions of botanically identical plants thus saving material costs. These observations suggest a need for different types of labels for different situations, what I specify as "function specific labels". But, this does not infer a need for a complex series of label sizes, forms and designs.


Accession labels serve an obvious function. They physically link plants to additional data in corresponding records. Display labels identify plants for visitors and can supply factual information concerning cultural requirements, distribution, taxonomy, and awards. The information provided to a certain extent reflects the goals and objectives of the garden (e.g. scientific, horticultural).

A garden's labelling technique is an essential element of the work of botanic gardens and periodic reviews will help to ensure creative solutions to labelling the collections.


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