What’s In a Name?

In a recently posted blog on Thuja occidentalis, I briefly mention confusion caused by common names.  As an example, common names for the Thuja occidentalis include Eastern white cedar and swamp cedar.  However, the Thuja occidentalis is not a cedar at all.  In fact, there are no true cedars native to North America.  The common names come from the fact that it smells similar to true cedars from the Mediterranean.  The North American trees most aromatically similar to true cedars belong to Cupressaceae or cypress family.  These include Juniperus, junipers, as well as the Thuja. However, not all members of the Cupressaceae are aromatic. 

Common names are colloquial and/or regional.  What someone calls a swamp maple back east may mean nothing to me in the west.  However, if they reference Acer rubrum, I know exactly what species of tree they are talking about.  These globally-accepted scientific names allow clear communication about specific species no matter where you are in the world, no matter what the native language is.   Which is exactly why scientific names were created; they cross all language barriers. 

The gentleman credited with formalizing binomial nomenclature (broadly meaning a name with two parts), was Carl/Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778).  The first part is the “generic” name, which identifies the genus the plant belongs to.  The second part is the specific epithet, which generally is a descriptive identifier.  Originally the specific epithet may have been several words describing the plant in detail but was shortened to a single word.  Putting the genus and specific epithet together gives you the species: a formal (also called scientific or Latin) name of a specific plant.

Learning these formal or scientific names is really not hard and actually can be fun.  Go ahead and learn the ones of the species you encounter, it really does save confusion and misunderstanding. 

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