(Not so) common tree names

By BJ Price - Preble Soil and Water Conservation District

Buttonwood. Bee Tree. Bilsted. Each of these is a common name for three common trees found in this part of the world, better known to us as Sycamore, Basswood, and Sweet Gum, respectively. To be more specific, we could write Platanus occidentalis, Tilia americana, and Liquidambar styraciflua. While we might have trouble pronouncing the scientific names, folks around the whole world would know what we are talking about.

To put common and scientific names in perspective, consider someone you know who goes by a title totally different from his legal name. Sure, this person’s family or friends may know him as ‘Bud’, but ‘Bud’ won’t mean much to the IRS or the License Bureau if his real name happens to be Arthur. The same is true with trees. Some common names have only local usage, but scientific names are standardized across the world.

Why do we have so many different common names for the same trees? As explained by the botanist, naturalist, and author Donald Culross Peattie:

The English names of trees exhibit endless duplication and synonymy. Almost every tree has two or three names, and some have fifteen or twenty… lumbermen may call a tree one thing, while the same species is called by a different name by foresters. Who knows best – foresters or lumbermen? The answer would be subjective, and a matter of opinion. Farmers and nurserymen, landscape architects and North Woods guides, each have their own terminology for trees. Further, dwellers in one part of the same state may call a tree by quite a different name from that used in another section.

Ask any class of 20 students to describe the same tree, and you may hear 20 different answers. Many of our tree titles, both common and scientific, are based on descriptions of the plant. Think about cottonwood, named for the cotton-y fibers attached to the seed, or Kentucky Coffee-tree, so named for the seeds which were roasted and brewed by early settlers as a coffee substitute. And then there’s the Ohio Buckeye, also known as American Horse-chestnut, with the nut looking much like a buck’s eye, and burning bush, the ornamental with striking red fall color that very much resembles a burning bush. Naming trees based on descriptive features becomes very subjective, with each person coming up with a label based on what feature stands out to them.

So why not just come up with one common name for each tree? Having so many designations for one tree can lead to some serious communication issues. Consider the Tulip Poplar, which is not a Poplar at all, or the Osage Orange, which one would certainly not want to confuse with an Orange tree. But then again, using all these different names does keep life interesting. If it were not for the variety of tree names, on game day all you Buckeye fans might be rooting for the Ohio State American Horse-chestnuts.

Our annual tree and plant sale is going on now at Preble Soil and Water Conservation District, with over 20 species of trees, shrubs, garden plants, and perennials available. For an order form, visit www.prebleswcd.org or call the office at 937-456-5159.

By BJ Price

Preble Soil and Water Conservation District