How do trees get their names?

Did you know?

Each plant species has a scientific name in Latin. This name is the same all over the world, no matter the local language.

Scientific names are split into two parts.

  •    The first part is the generic name. This refers to all species belonging to the same family. It is written with a capital letter.
  •    The second part is the specific name. This refers to the particular type of plant.

The Scots Pine can be found right across Europe to Siberia. Wherever you find it, it is called ‘Pinus sylvestris’ in Latin, regardless of the local language. Normally Latin names are written either in italics or underlined. The scientific name often describes the tree.

The first part (generic name) normally refers to some general feature of that type of tree. For example, ‘Pinus’ means ‘pine’. The second name (species name) may refer to a unique feature of the tree, such as its colour or size. It may also refer to where it comes from (habitat, country) or who discovered it. For example, ‘sylvestris’ means ‘woods’. Therefore ‘Pinus sylvestris’ means ‘pine of the woods’.

Pinus sylvestris growing on the slopes of the Sierra Guadarrama range near Madrid, Spain

Why do we need to give trees a scientific name?

Local names for trees can change between countries and may even vary within the same country. Scientific names in Latin for plants and animals were first suggested by the Swedish naturalist, Karl Linnaeus in the 18th century to avoid confusion among scientists.

Do all trees with the same name look the same?

There are often local variations in shape, size or colour. Where these differences occur in the wild, the trees are called ‘varieties’. A third part is added to the name in order to distinguish these varieties. For example, the Highland variety of Scots pine with its distinctive short, blue-green needles becomes ‘Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica.

Some varieties of trees are selectively bred. Such a tree is called a ‘cultivar’. The cultivar’s name comes after the scientific names and in a single quotation mark. For example, there is a gold-leaved form of Scots pine that was raised in a nursery. This variation of Scots pine is known as Pinus sylvestris Aurea.

How are hybrid trees named?

When species of trees from the same family but native to different parts of the world are brought together by human actions, you can end up with a hybrid tree. These trees show characteristics of both ‘parent’ trees. For example, European and Japanese larches are usually found continents apart. However, in Dunkeld, Scotland, they were planted near each other. They cross-fertilised and produced a hybrid called the Dunkeld larch. The scientific name of this variety is ‘Larix x eurolepis’. The ‘x’ indicates that this is a hybrid produced by two parents of the same family, the larch family.

More rarely, trees from different families produce hybrids. The Leyland cypress, which is commonly used for hedges in Britain, is a cross between two American species; the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and the Nootka cypress (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis). An ‘x’ is placed before the scientific names of these kinds of hybrids. The scientific name of the Leyland cypress is x Cuprocyparis leylandii.