All About… Tree Names

The system of plant names and classification can be a jungle as tangled and impenetrable as anything Tarzan ever swung through. There is a whole discipline – plant taxonomy – that deals just with this topic. This item is a brief attempt to hack some sort of a way through the thickets to gain a little understanding.

Every plant has a Botanical Name, which is used by scientists and the trade to distinguish it. These names are complicated, often part Latin and/or Greek, and are not familiar in everyday use. The trade often uses these names: they are like any other jargon, handy, but not very accessible. They are often the cause of confusion to the layman.

Plants that have been cultivated for a long time, or that grow widely, often have a Common English Name. Most of us know these names, and we often recognise these plants. For instance, oak, ash, birch, box, elder.

So why doesn’t the trade use these common names?

Firstly, the Common English Names may themselves be confusing. For example, Mountain Ash, a beautiful tree, does indeed grow naturally on mountains. However it is not related to the true Ash, and has this name only because the leaves are superficially similar. Hardly helpful. The tree ‘Mountain Ash’ is also sometimes called Rowan. What’s the difference? None. It’s the same tree. But the botanical name, Sorbus aucuparia, tells us that the tree is in fact much more closely related to Sorbus aria: this tree has the common name Whitebeam, from the Old English words for white tree. And what about the Box Elder, another beautiful and widely distributed tree? It is neither a box, nor an elder! The Botanical Name for it is Acer negundo, indicating that the tree is in fact a maple.

Secondly, Botanical names are recognised internationally. Sorbus aucuparia is understood by nurserymen and specialists all over the world.

Thirdly, quite a few plants have not entered our everyday language, and so do not have a common name.

Here are a few Botanical names that correspond to the common names in the left hand column.

Alder Alnus
Common alder Alnus glutinosa
Birch Betula
Silver birch Betula pendula
Himalayan birch Betula Jacquemontii
Hornbeam Carpinus betulus
Maple Acer
Norway maple Acer platanoides
Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus
Oak Quercus
Common or English oak Quercus robur
Lime Tilia
Common Lime Tilia europaea

Sometimes a particularly attractive individual plant appears in the population. It may be singled out and propagated specially, so that new plants just like it can be distributed. This may then be given a name of its own. For example, a Norway maple (Acer platanoides) was discovered with beautiful deep red leaves. This tree was given the nameAcer platanoides Crimson King: it is rightly popular and is propagated widely in the trade. Similarly, a hornbeam was seen that had a very upright or Fastigiate habit, making it excellent for avenues or formal planting. This tree is called Carpinus betulus Fastigiata.

At Green Mile Trees we are used to common and botanical names being used pretty much interchangeably. So if you want to enquire about a particular tree, be assured that we don’t have any hang-ups about posh names. Browse the rest of our website to see the big range of great trees that we offer, and contact us if there is anything there that takes your fancy. You can search on both common and botanical names using the box at the top.