• Anne Gunning

R2111 Beautiful means nothing to me

Exam techniques for describing decorative merit, planting situation and site requirements.

Please note this guidance only applies to R2111 - Understanding garden features, plant selection and planning.


I am currently marking papers for R2111 and one thing really annoys me. Many candidates waste time, ink and MARKS describing the decorative merit of plants as ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ or ‘has good Autumn colour.’ These terms could apply to practically any plant – to us gardeners any plant is beautiful in some way. So we need to be more specific.

All these plants have 'attractive' flowers or 'attractive' leaves so no marks are awarded for this kind of description of decorative merit.

When describing the decorative merit of a plant you need to ask yourself : If I described this plant to someone, would they be able to name it? If I described a plant as a low growing herbaceous bulb which has nodding bell shaped flower heads with purple and pink petals showing a chequerboard pattern would you know the plant? Ask me and I would say Fritillaria meleagris as that is the only one I know that looks like that.

Here is the RHS link if you want to take a look:

Just a little note for all you keen botanists who argue I should describe the ‘petals’ of Fritillaria meleagris as ‘tepals.’ For the garden planning module we can use layman’s terms to describe leaf shape, flower shape and flower parts as some students will not have covered the Plant science module (R2101) and will not be familiar with the correct botanical terms. It is fine to say clusters of flowers, single flowers, cup shaped flowers, bowl shaped flowers, long narrow leaves, daisy like flowers, bell shaped flowers, round leaves, oval leaves, lobed leaves, leaves with a toothed edge, leaves with a spikey edge. As long as your description conjures an image of the plant you have named it is fine to use layman’s terms.

What will you be asked to describe and state for R2111 plant questions?

If you review the plant selection questions in R2111 they follow a similar format. The start of the question usually asks you to :

1. Name 4 trees or evergreen hedges or herbaceous perennials etc. and then you have to either:

2. Describe their decorative merit AND/OR

3. State the ideal site requirements AND/OR

4. State the type of garden they are used in or their planting situation.

Usually the question is in table format:

We will now examine each category in the table above.

1. Plant Name

State the correct botanical name for full marks. It should be the botanical or species name written in full. For example Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet’ or Prunus serrula.

Common names may get half a mark if they are very specific. For example if you put Tibetan cherry instead of Prunus serrula that would get half a mark. If you put lily instead of Convallaria majoralis (Lily of the valley) you would not get a mark as lily is a common name for many different species such as water lilies, day lilies, regal lilies, skunk lilies.

Prunus serrula (Tibetan Cherry) A tree suitable for a domestic garden as it is smaller than 12m. It's main decorative merit is the shiney copper brown bark which shows off in Winter when the branches are bare. It also has decorative merit in Spring (Clusters of white flowers) and Autumn (narrow leaves turn yellow)

I confess. When I was studying for exams and found some plant names impossible to remember, I decided to use the common name and drop half a mark. One such example are the water plants Pistia stratioites and Stratiotes aloides (Yes I did just google them) which have the common names Water lettuce and Water soldier. I gave up trying to learn the species name and just learnt the common names. Please note I am not recommending this for all plants - just the ones you find impossible to remember and that do have a specific common name as not all plants do have a common name. Best practice is to learn the full botanical name.

Want to have a look at these 2 botanical name mouthfuls? here are the links: water lettuce water soldier

Spelling does not have to be perfect but it should be recognisable as the botanical plant name. A double ‘l’ instead of a single ‘l’ will get you full marks but may make the examiner twitch a little. The same for using upper case letters to start the genus and lowercase to start the specific epithet. I don’t like to see them written in the wrong case but you wouldn’t lose marks - though I would be wringing my hands if this was repeated throughout the paper. For R2111 (This may not apply to other modules) you do not have to underline the species name but that does calm my twitching 😊

Choosing which plant names to learn

Sometimes it is very tempting to learn the shortest ones possible! I know, I’ve tried it. However sometimes knowing the cultivar then makes learning the decorative merit a lot easier.

For example, Alcea rosea (hollyhocks) come in a wide range of colours so examiners struggle to award full marks if the candidate hasn’t mentioned most flower colour options. BUT if you learnt Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’ then if you know that nigra means black, you then know exactly what colour the flowers are.

Another example is crab apple trees. There are many cultivars and it is difficult to remember the colour of the fruits as they vary from red to yellow to golden. I choose Malus ‘Rudolph’ because I can remember the small fruits are red just like Rudolph’s nose.

Some plants will also go into more than one category. Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet’ has a long name but is a great example as it ticks lots of boxes. It is a deciduous small tree. It has white cupped shaped clusters of white blossom in spring and golden small fruits in autumn that last through to winter so has significant decorative features in 3 seasons. This one is a great tree for your exams and for your garden.

Malus x zumi 'Golden Hornet' the golden fruits last well into Winter. This photo was taken mid November.

2. Decorative merit

Here's some good and bad answers:

POOR answers: These are some of the poor descriptions I have seen as answers:

Lovely Autumn Colour

Winter Wow factor

Striking bark

Pretty blossom

Attractive leaves

Attractive flowers

Good shape

Vibrant colour

Green leaves (yes students actually put this for evergreens)


GOOD answers: The following descriptions are much more detailed:

Orange and red foliage in Autumn

Bright white bark which stands out in Winter when branches are bare

Smooth Brassy brown shiny bark

White cup shaped flowers in clusters in Spring

Butter yellow leaf colour in Autumn

Lime green leaves with a hairy edge which are retained over Winter (then brown)

Purple daisy like flowers

Pendulous branches giving a good silhouette

* There is no alternative for ‘scented’ as you can not see scent and so is not a decorative merit so should not be included.

Where do you find the correct information to describe decorative merit?

The 2 best places to find the correct information is the RHS A-Z of Garden Plants,


The RHS website

Anything published by the RHS is accurate and science based. It is also what examiners refer to when marking the exam papers. Other sources vary in quality, missing out specific epithets or parts of the species name. The RHS A-Z book is pricey but something you will use forever if you are a gardener. Older editions are OK (and cheaper) but as new plants are discovered and bred, they are added to the book so the more recent the edition, the better.

The bonus of the website is: it is free if you have internet access. This is what I tend to use as the long one meter walk to my bookcase to lift a heavy A-Z volume is far more effort than staying seated and tapping. Seriously we should use our books more!!

Using the RHS website to find decorative merit details

If we use Fagus sylvatica (Beech) as an example.

I type ‘Fagus sylvatica RHS’ into the search engine and the top result should look like the image below: The RHS link is highlighted in the pink box of this screen shot.

If we click on this top link it will take us to the RHS page which describes Fagus sylvatica in detail. The details usually span 2 pages so you will have to scroll down but here is a screen shot showing all the information on Fagus sylvatica: Sorry this one is a bit blurry:

The information for decorative merit is found in the areas surrounded by the pink boxes below:

The height and spread is part of the decorative merit and you can also see if the tree is suitable for a domestic garden (less than 12 metres) In the case of Beech it would not be suitable as an example of a tree for a domestic garden as it is too large but it would be suitable as an example of a plant for the English Landscape Garden style or a hedge so it is also important to know what the named plant example is being used for.

3. Site Requirements

Site requirements means: What soil and environmental conditions does the plant need to thrive. Here we include site characteristics such as soil type, pH, drainage, aspect and shelter.

When answering a question you are best to state at least 2 site conditions in the answer. Let us look at Fagus sylvatica and where we find the site requirements information. This information is highlighted in the pink boxes below.

So if you listed any of the following for Fagus sylvatica you would receive marks:

Full sun or South facing aspect (Both very similar terms)

Semi shade or North facing aspect (Both very similar terms)

Exposed site

Sheltered site

Clay soil or Loam soil or Sandy soil or Chalky soil. (Do not put ‘any soil’ as this could include contaminated soils with a soil depth of 1 mm which would not do.)

Acid, alkaline or neutral soil pH (Do not put ‘any pH’ as this is too vague and would include extreme pH values when plants would die)

Well-drained soil

Free draining but moisture retentive Drainage = many plants grow well in free draining but moisture retentive soil but there are some (Bog Plants) that have to have moist soil and there are some like Hylotelphium telphium that have to have free draining soil.

Fagus sylvatica is a good all rounder and can grow in a wide range of soils and aspects. Other plants however are not so accommodating.

Other plant examples such as Erysimum cheiri (wall flower) are a bit more choosy about their preferred site conditions. Here is the link for the full information on the RHS website:

Here is the RHS website section on site conditions for Erysimum cheiri or Wall flower:

For wall flower you would have to list the following to receive marks:

Full sun or South facing aspect (Both very similar terms)

Semi shade or North facing aspect (Both very similar terms)

Exposed site

Sheltered site

Clay soil or Loam soil or Sandy soil or Chalky soil.

Acid, alkaline or neutral soil pH

Well-drained soil

Free draining but moisture retentive

So the range of correct answers for Erysimum cheiri is narrower

How many site requirements would you include in the answer?

Sometimes one is enough, always two is enough, so put TWO.

4. Planting Situation / Garden Situation

The information required here is:

Where would this plant be used (Type or style of garden) and whereabouts in the garden would it be placed? What function would it serve?

This information for Fagus sylvatica is found towards the bottom of the web page here:

Examples of planting situations / garden situations are:

· Low maintenance hedging as for Fagus sylvatica.

· Screening

· Rockery or crevices in a dry stone wall for alpines and rockery plants

· Wildlife pond for water plants. Marginal water plants specifically on the upper

shelves of the pond.

· ‘Borders’ for many herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs and in this case it is good to state whether they are best at the back (wall side), middle or front of the border depending on height.

· Some plants lend themselves to a wildlife garden as they are nectar rich or have berries for the birds.

· Many plants would fit well into a cottage garden, particularly biennials and hardy annuals that are allowed to seed freely.

· Trees would fit into many gardens as a specimen tree in the lawn or within a border.

· If plants thrive in windy conditions or can tolerate salt laden winds they would be good to use in a coastal garden.

· Naturalised bulbs would do well in a woodland garden such as Narcissus

pseudonarcissus and Galanthus nivali as these particular bulbs are good for


· Banks and slopes

· Containers on the patio

· Informal garden

· Formal garden

· Courtyard garden – this is mentioned in may plant profiles on the RHS website as a planting situation. To me a courtyard garden is an enclosed garden usually square or rectangular with solid walls or buildings surrounding it. So many many plants will do well there as there will be various microclimates provided (south facing sunny wall, shady cooler North facing wall and sheltered areas) I think that if you are to use courtyard as a planting situation you need to state the position in a courtyard - does it require a sunny south facing wall or a shadier west/east wall or could it tolerate a very shady north facing wall.

Summary of key points

Plant name : Write the full botanical name for full marks

Decorative merit : Using layman’s terms describe the flower, leaf, stems, bark, form in as much detail as possible and relate the merits to the season . No marks for scent, beautiful, attractive or lovely.

Site Requirements: Soil, aspect, drainage, shelter

Planting situation : Type of garden and place within the garden.

Still confused? Here are a few good examples for you to evaluate:

Gunnera manicata

Link to RHS website where the information below was found

Gunnera manicata in a bog garden. This is late Spring so it still has some growing to do.

Hylotelphium telphium (used to be called Sedum spectabile)

Link to RHS website where the infromation below was found:

Hylotelphium telphium at the front of a mixed border

Link to RHS website where the infromation below was found:

There are many cultivars of Lathyrus odoratus as seen in this photo. If you are going to describe the basic species you need to know the colour of the flowers (red and purple, see above) - just saying various colours, pink, mauve, red, white etc. is incorrect as these colours are cultivars. For example Lathyrus odoratus 'White Supreme' has white flowers.

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