Magazine article American Forests

A Tree by Any Other Name

Magazine article American Forests

A Tree by Any Other Name

Article excerpt

Read this story carefully. If you're still in the woods about identifying, naming, and pronouncing tree names, please don't call the editors of this magazine.

"If I had wanted to memorize so many names, I would have become a botanist."

Enrico Fermi

The Nobel prize-winning physicist was expressing his dismay at the ever-growing list of names--quarks, neutrinos, leptons, gluons, bosons, etc.--for the ever-smaller particles of matter that he and his colleagues were discovering. But in a roundabout way he was also commenting on the rigors of plant nomenclature. The history of tree names is a fascinating but dizzying account of frustration and confusion.

Imagine you were skiing with friends through the back woodlot recently. As you entered a stand of balsam fir, one of your friends held forth on the beauty of those snow-covered "evergreens." Another friend called them "pine trees." Didn't the farmer up the road call them "Balm O'Gilead?" Then again, the old-time forester you had in a few months back said those "blister pines" sure were making good growth. His young intern saw it differently. She said the deer use those "fir" as a wintering yard. Of course, identical trees at the local landscape nursery are labeled "silver pine." And when your uncle, the retired professor of botany, came for a visit, he said that beyond a shadow of a doubt those were "Abies balsamea." Your kids call them "Christmas trees."

It's true. Most trees have a couple of names, and some have dozens. Perhaps worse, though, is when the same name is used for several different species. Millions of homeowners proudly walk on "yellow pine" floors. They might be made from any of 10 southern yellow pines, most likely: longleaf, shortleaf, slash, or loblolly. On the other hand, there are at least another dozen or so "yellow pines" in the West, including ponderosa, Jeffrey, and lodgepole--although these are probably better for interior moldings than flooring.

Still with me? Consider the oaks; they're notoriously difficult to identify. And even when you do, there remains the challenge of keeping their names straight. The confusion usually starts with the two broad categories into which oaks are lumped: the "white oaks" and the "red oaks."

There are some good reasons for the separation. Red oaks have bristle-tipped leaves, white oaks don't; red-oak acorns need two years to mature, white-oak acorns need only one. Perhaps more important is the practical advantage held by white-oak wood--it tends to be more watertight.

The real question, however, is not whether to separate the oaks into two classes but rather why to call them "red oaks" and "white oaks"? Nobody seems to be very sure of the answer, but the smart money says that the basis lies in the general color of the wood--the wood of all species of white oaks is lighter-colored than the pink-tinged, salmon-hued wood of the red oaks.

Foremost among the white-oak group is "eastern white oak," heralded for its unrivaled spread of branches. However, it is not to be confused with "swamp white oak"--known for its contrasty, two-color leaves, green above and whitish underneath, and plainly different from the "swamp post oak," whose acorns are over-cupped. You'd never confuse it with the scrubby but utilitarian "post oak." And don't forget "chinquapin oak"; it is easily separated from the "chinquapin," which is not an oak but a chestnut and is altogether different from the "chestnut oak."

The red-oak group can be just as confusing. "Northern red oak" (also called "gray oak" because of its bark) is, at least mostly, geographically separated from "southern red oak," known to some as "Spanish oak" but never to be mistaken for "scarlet oak," whose blazing red leaves easily distinguish it from the "Shumard red oak." If you find those easy to sort out, try "black oak," a member of the red-oak group, once known for its importance in making yellow dye!

The list is endless. …

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