Rome-ing the Landscape

January 1, 2020

What do paper birch, white birch, and canoe birch have in common? Plenty! They are the same tree. Over the years people in different parts of the country have come to know trees by local names. Aspen, for instance, is commonly known as poplar or popple in some places and is sometimes mistakenly called gray birch. Maples are even more confusing. Is this a rock maple or sugar maple? Is that a striped maple or moosewood? It all depends on which name you prefer.

The confusion does not end with trees. Black raspberries, black caps, and thimble berries are all one and the same, as is the popular houseplant sansevieria, a.k.a. snake plant and mother-in-law’s tongue. Imagine the added confusion when plantsmen of different countries want to purchase, or even just discuss, a particular plant.In the mid-18th century, the Swedish botanist and physician Carolus Linnaeus (aka Carl von Linné) revolutionized the study of science when he came up with a widely accepted system for classifying and naming plants (and eventually animals, minerals, and diseases). His system, known as binomial nomenclature, uses two Latinized words to describe each plant. The first, the genus name, describes a group marked by common characteristics. The genus name for any birch is Betula. Next comes the specific epithet, or species name, which is often descriptive. The paper birch classified with its Latin name is Betula papyrifera. A third or fourth name may be added to further describe a variety or cultivar. For example, the cut-leaf weeping birch is Betula pendula dalecarlica.

Although Latin naming is the only certain way to describe plants accurately, common names will always have their place. Can you imagine a poem starting out, “Under the spreading Aesculus hippocastanum the village smithy stands”? “Scarborough Fair” would never have made the Top 40 if Simon and Garfunkel had sung, “Petroselinum crispum, Salvia officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, and Thymus vulgaris.

Common names are often more colorful and descriptive than their scientific counterparts. Flowers like Johnny jump-up and rambling rose add a poetic feel to the garden, while ironwood and rock maple make statements about strength.

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