Botanical Tree Names Simplified

The botanical or scientific names of trees, on the face of it, appear to complicate, rather than simplify, the subject of identification. The following is a brief introduction to a lengthy subject that hopefully simplifies and clarifies the use of these names.


Carl Linnaeus was the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of nomenclature (naming plants) and published the first edition of his Systema Naturae between 1735/38. He is known as the 'father of modern taxonomy'.

Trees are typically given two names, the first name is the genus or generic name and the second is the species or specific name, however, variations or variety within a species will be given a third name to distinguish one from another. For example, the botanical name of a Beech tree is Fagus sylvatica and of a Copper Beech is Fagus sylvatica 'purpurea', the 'purpurea' indicates the tree is a 'purple or copper' variety of the species sylvatica.

A genus, according to Linnaeus, is the name for a group of species that are very closely related to one another (based on studies of morphology and the anatomy of the trees). A species is traditionally defined as a group of trees capable of cross pollination and producing fertile offspring. The species name is usually adjectival and describes colour, form and habit, or some other character of the tree.

The botanical names of trees are derived primarily from Latin and Greek and it is, I think, this use of ancient and dead languages that seems to unnecessarily complicate matters. However, many Latin and Greek words have been absorbed into our everyday language and we use them as if they were our own, for example, geranium, aster, dahlia, primula, fushia, campanula, veronica and so on. Granted these are all flowering plants and not trees, but surely it is only a matter of familiarity and not the 'original' language that is the stumbling block.


So why use botanical names anyway?

  • Blackthorn, quickthorn and sloe are all colloquial names for the same plant, namely: Prunus spinosa – 'prunus' meaning 'plum' and 'spinosa' meaning 'spiny'. The botanical name enables people in different parts of the country to know they are talking about the same plant and allows people from different countries to communicate precisely and with brevity.
  • Botanical names sometimes provide an insight into the history of a tree, for example the Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, was first catalogued by Archibald Menzies (hence the Latinised species) and introduced to this country by David Douglas (hence the common name).
  • Botanical names, once understood, help to identify individual species and distinguish between similar species. For example, there are two native lime trees, the 'small leaved' and the 'large leaved', namely 'Tilia cordata' and 'Tilia platyphyllos' – Tilia meaning 'lime tree', 'cordata' meaning 'heart-shaped (referring to the leaves)' and 'platyphyllos' meaning 'broad-leaved'. Hence the two limes can be distinguished, one from the other, by the breadth of their leaves.
  • Botanical names also help to identify closely related trees, by means of their genus, in much the same way as we identify closely related family members, by a common surname. The species name distinguishes between the members of a genus as a first name distinguishes between family members.
  • Finally, Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624) was the first person to propose a system using just two names to identify plants. Linnaeus methodically started to classify everything in the living world and the system became universally adopted. Prior to the adoption, each plant was known by a lengthy, descriptive sentence which varied between authors and changed in translation, so if you think modern botanical names are difficult, just imagine what it was like before!