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Popular ornamental garden plants like roses, camellias, daffodils, rhododendrons, and azaleas are cultivars produced by careful breeding and selection for floral colour and form.

Cultivars form a major part of Liberty Hyde Bailey's broader group, the cultigen, which is a taxonomic rank below subspecies, and there are differences in the rules for creating and using the names of botanical varieties and cultivars.

In recent times, the naming of cultivars has been complicated by the use of statutory patents for plants and recognition of plant breeders' rights.) offers legal protection of plant cultivars to persons or organisations that introduce new cultivars to commerce.

In Species Plantarum, Linnaeus enumerated all plants known to him, either directly or from his extensive reading.

He recognised the rank of varietas (botanical "variety", a rank below that of species and subspecies) and he indicated these varieties with letters of the Greek alphabet, such as α, β, and λ, before the varietal name, rather than using the abbreviation "var." as is the present convention.

Botanical historian Alan Morton noted that Theophrastus in his Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants) "had an inkling of the limits of culturally induced (phenotypic) changes and of the importance of genetic constitution" (Historia Plantarum, Book 3, 2, 2 and Causa Plantarum, Book 1, 9, 3).

The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants uses as its starting point for modern botanical nomenclature the Latin names in Linnaeus' (1707–1778) Species Plantarum (tenth edition) and Genera Plantarum (fifth edition).

Bailey never explicitly stated the etymology of cultivar, and it has been suggested that it is instead a contraction of cultigen and variety, which seems correct.

Bread wheat, Triticum aestivum, is considered a cultigen, and is a distinct species from other wheats according to the biological species concept.