Plant names provide the botanical vocabulary we use to describe the plant world to each other. They are important descriptors that facilitate both backyard gardening and scientific study by establishing a widely agreed upon naming convention of species. In our current system of plant language, each plant species has a formally established scientific name as well as a less formal and more regionally applicable common name.
While scientific names are viewed as international and the standard by which plants (and other biota) are referenced, common names are much less standardized. In fact, they vary widely by region and by generation. I have always loved learning new common names for the same plant as it is interesting to think about the different perspectives that brought us those names and the history behind their naming.
Although I grew up in central Illinois, I took dendrology (the classification of woody plants) in southern Illinois. So the common names I learned in this college course were local to the southern Illinois region. For example, black gum is a common name for Nyssa sylvatica, a native tree whose range extends from southern Illinois up the eastern border of state, reaching central Illinois. Most folks I know in the central part of the state refer to this plant as “black gum”. However, I learned the common name as “black tupelo” and a majority of folks I know from southern Illinois use that same common name. To further complicate things, there is faction that refer to this plant as “sour gum” or some simply call it “tupelo”.
There are also examples of a single common name that may refer to several species. “Ironwood” is a common name for a great many trees. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 different native tree species that are known to some as “Ironwood”. There are many other examples of overlapping common names that span the US and the globe.
So, whose common plant names are actually correct? I believe that they all are correct and that it is a personal choice as to which common name you reference for particular plant. However, this wide disparity among common names really illustrates the need for a standard scientific name for each plant.
Scientific names enable botanists from around the globe to clearly communicate about plants. Most scientific names are derived from the Latin and Greek, challenging many of us who don’t have familiarity with these ancient languages. For the college freshman taking dendrology, Latin names can be the bane of their existence. Dendrology was one of the toughest courses I took in college, yet one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge I gained from all my studies.
I have found that learning some of the basics of Latin is not always as hard as you might think. In fact, some of these words are already intertwined in our own language since English and many other Germanic languages have a basis in Latin and Greek.
Knowing the meaning of the Latin words used in plant names can give a clue as to why that plant name was selected and may provide a helpful memory aid. For example, bur oak’s scientific name is Quercus macrocarpa. I think many of us would recognize “macro” as meaning large. “Carpo” is a Greek word for fruit. So, the overly large acorns of bur oak (one of the largest among Illinois oaks) make a helpful connection to its species name (macrocarpa), which can be translated as “large fruit”
Scientific names are not only valued as a standardized way to communicate about plants, but those names reflect the evolutionary history of plants and relate species by their lineage. When you look at the taxonomic system of naming for all biota, this system describes how all life relates by organizing it into kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species in descending order. It paints the picture of life on our planet and learning scientific names allows you to understand far more than a simple name.
While obscure Latin names may challenge college freshman each year, there is a world of information you can ascertain by learning to use these names. I encourage every gardener to begin to identify plants using scientific names, there is no telling what you may uncover from a name.