The term cultivar[nb 1] most commonly refers to an assemblage of plants selected for desirable characters that are maintained during propagation. More generally, cultivar refers to the most basic classification category of cultivated plants in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Most cultivars arose in cultivation, but a few are special selections from the wild.
Popular ornamental garden plants like roses, camellias, daffodils, rhododendrons, and azaleas are cultivars produced by careful breeding and selection for floral colour and form. Similarly, the world's agricultural food crops are almost exclusively cultivars that have been selected for characters such as improved yield, flavour, and resistance to disease, and very few wild plants are now used as food sources. Trees used in forestry are also special selections grown for their enhanced quality and yield of timber.
Cultivars form a major part of Liberty Hyde Bailey's broader group, the cultigen, which is defined as a plant whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity. A cultivar is not the same as a botanical variety, 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.
The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV – French: Union internationale pour la protection des obtentions végétales) offers legal protection of plant cultivars to persons or organisations that introduce new cultivars to commerce. UPOV requires that a cultivar be "distinct, uniform", and "stable". To be "distinct", it must have characters that easily distinguish it from any other known cultivar. To be "uniform" and "stable", the cultivar must retain these characters in repeated propagation.
The naming of cultivars is an important aspect of cultivated plant taxonomy, and the correct naming of a cultivar is prescribed by the Rules and Recommendations of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP, commonly denominated the Cultivated Plant Code). A cultivar is given a cultivar name, which consists of the scientific Latin botanical name followed by a cultivar epithet. The cultivar epithet is usually in a vernacular language. For example, the full cultivar name of the King Edward potato is Solanum tuberosum 'King Edward'. 'King Edward' is the cultivar epithet, which, according to the Rules of the Cultivated Plant Code, is bounded by single quotation marks.
The word cultivar originated from the need to distinguish between wild plants and those with characteristics that arose in cultivation, presently denominated cultigens. This distinction dates to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370–285 BC), the "Father of Botany", who was keenly aware of this difference. 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). 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. Most of the varieties that Linnaeus enumerated were of "garden" origin rather than being wild plants.