What’s in a Name?

September 2, 2022 · 2 minute read
What’s in a Name?

I’m originally from a city that changed its name from Losantiville, which means means ‘the city opposite the mouth of the river,’ to Cincinnati. The former name told us about the landscape, the culture, and language in the region, and gave us clues to what makes up the city and who lives there. It was thoughtful, helpful, and promptly thrown out after only 2 years in favor of honoring some Roman dictator that did nothing that’s related to what the city represents.

Naming cities and rivers and even trees can get a little messy, and mostly feels arbitrary. If you grew up next to somebody and have both been living in the same place your whole lives, you could either refer to Quercus phellos as a willow oak, or as a pin oak. You might be tempted to call an Acer negundo a boxelder, or ash-leaf maple if you’re a sap (pun), but we all know it’s clearly a ‘poison ivy tree.’ I’m kidding, but I have heard that before. So what the heck is up with all these names for the same thing, and are any a misnomer?

A blue beech is not a beech, a sweet gum is not a gum, and an Eastern red cedar is not a cedar. Worse yet, a cucumber tree does not bear cucumbers; this is getting confusing! These misnomers are the cause of a lot of disruption from time to time. Sometimes there are a few characteristics that both these species share, but on a closer look, these trees became distant relatives long ago.

Scientists will use the Latin binomial nomenclature for strict classification of trees, to communicate clearly about a specific kind of tree. Although I’m a professional, I find reading the Latin names of trees makes my eyes cross. It can be boring, like reading the phone book – unless it’s a crape myrtle, which has a type of beer in it’s scientific name: Lagerstroemia. I tend to defer to using the common name of trees in my day to day, just to keep things simple, but that gets tricky with every client I meet, and what they want to call it.

In the end, it’s important that we stay on the same page about our trees, or at least while you’re talking to an arborist. If there’s a miscommunication about a particular tree, you might end up planting the wrong tree in an unsuitable location, or contracting a company to cut down the wrong tree. And if they happen to cut down your family tree, no one will know where you’re coming from.