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The Naming of Trees

Tree species, like other living organisms, are given at least two names; a common name or names and a scientific (botanical) name. Common names are most used in day-to-day conversation and are often based on some characteristic or tradition relative to that particular species. As examples, balsam fir is named for the balsam (resin) found in the blisters on the bark, Douglas-fir is named for David Douglas who began studying the species in 1825, and Virginia pine is common to the mountainous regions of that state. The same species may also have several common names, depending on geographic location, local custom or preference. For this and other reasons, common names can also be quite confusing. Douglas-fir is not really a fir, resin blisters are found on trees other than balsam fir, and Virginia pine's habitat is not limited to a single state. Even more confusing are such inaccuracies as blue spruce not always being the color blue and redcedar not even being a cedar.

The need to overcome the many difficulties in using common names was recognized by the earliest scientists. These scientists also began developing systems that would allow for grouping of similar individuals and species based on relatively stable characteristics (fruits, seeds, etc.). The current system of plant classification was developed by Carl Ritter van Linne', a Swedish naturalist who lived from 1707 to 1778. As was the custom at that time, he wrote his name in the Latin form of "Linnaeus", and it is the name Linnaeus by which he is most familiar. Linnaeus not only identified and classified thousands of species but also developed the use of a scientific name comprised of two parts; 1) a genus (pl. genera) name and 2) a species epithet, so that each species is uniquely identified, such as Pinus strobus for eastern white pine. While some of Linnaeus' classifications have been modified as well as new species added, a number of the scientific names in use today are directly attributable to his early efforts.

In addition to genus and species identification, scientific names also may include a variety designation, as in Abies fraseri var. phanerolepis. A taxonomic variety, or sometimes referred to as a subspecies, is defined as genetic or morphological subdivision of a species. In this sense. a variety is simply the next lower unit in the classification hierarchy. A taxonomic variety should not be confused with a "cultivar" which is the shorten form of "cultivated variety", often used in horticulture and other plant sciences to denote a unique form or type which is propagated and maintained for specific purposes.

Scientific names may also be followed by the names of one or more individuals. These individuals are those who identified, named or classified the species. The names of the more commonly-occurring individuals are usually abbreviated as with "L." for Linnaeus, or "Doug." for David Douglas. Often, two or more individuals are listed in order to provide recognition for their contributions.

Common names can be informative as well as interesting, but for accuracy, scientific names should always be included.

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Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University