Scientific names for trees can be scary

Scientific names for trees can be scary and, as with many other fears, one way to deal with them is to laugh at their weirdness.

These botanical names are always in Latin and often have multiple syllables just to intimidate the faint-hearted.  They ensure everyone refers to specific trees by the same names; the first name indicates the type of tree (for instance oak or pine) while the second name identifies the species, the exact sort of pine or oak.  For instance English oak is Quercus robur, Quercus being the Latin name for oak and robur being the species we commonly call English oak.  Scots pine is Pinus sylvestris.  Pinus is the Latin for pine and sylvestris means ‘of the woods’, but our common name refers only to where we normally find it, Scotland.

Trees also have common names to make it easy for us to remember how to spot them next time we see them.  That’s the theory.  The name should tell us something helpful about the tree’s habits or appearance.  Some names do.  ‘Downy birch’ has small hairs all over the underside of the leaves and leaf stalks; evergreen oak doesn’t lose all its leaves in the winter.

But many common names don’t do this job properly; they refer to the natural home area of the tree (Himalayan cherry); or to an obscure botanical feature that’s not easily recognised (pedunculate oak) or maybe they honour the person who discovered the species (Pere David’s maple).  None of this helps us distinguish them from similar species.

In fact common names are notoriously difficult to use in any but a very local way.  I recently asked a landscaper to order some ‘black pines’ wanting to plant the European pine called Pinus nigra (Latin Pinus for pine and nigra meaning black).  But he sourced the Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergii, a more expensive tree.

If two different areas adopt the same tree they may think in error that they are talking to each other about a different tree.  For instance when my friend Manfred tells me about ‘German oak’ in Germany I need to know that we call that tree ‘English oak’ in the UK.

Sometimes common names reflect similar sentiments in different countries; the giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is also known to Americans as the Washingtonia tree to commemorate George Washington.  When this tree was introduced into UK just after the Duke of Wellington died we called it the Wellingtonia tree.

Common names come even more unstuck in the case of sycamores.  The tree we call a sycamore is a type of maple.  In USA the tree called sycamore is a plane tree, not related to maples but with similar, lobed leaves.  And to make matters worse the Scots call our sycamore the great plane.  So, two names; complete confusion.

The moral is, I think, let’s keep our common names for trees, but always check you’re talking about the same thing when discussing details.

Article written by Steve Cox on May 13, 2011