October 1, 2019
Botanical nomenclature sparks interest in nature
What’s in a name?
BY JEFF McMANN
Shakespeare penned, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
We usually hear this phrase when people are claiming names do not really matter, that all you need to know is what something is, and not its name. However, the importance of a name and its value are universal. Everyone recognizes himself by a name, and the same is true of plants — and especially trees.
Hundreds of people walk through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and its arboretum every day, taking in the beautiful, peaceful surroundings, and of course observing the trees. Over the last few years, we have noticed a growing public interest not only in the trees, but also in their names.
Many of our trees are affixed with identification labels. Quite often an individual will stop and ask me to explain what the different names are. I reply that the label shows the botanical and common names, the tree family, area of origin and an ID number.
They immediately talk about the common name. Perhaps they know that tree by another name, and may ask why the botanical name is on the label, since no one reads Latin any more. We explain that common names vary according to the area where you live, and sometimes describe an aspect of the plant. Many regions and locales have their own colloquial names for certain plants, that mean nothing in another part of the country or province.
I often use the example of the red maple tree. I ask, “What is a red maple tree?” Some of the answers include Japanese maple, Crimson King maple and occasionally, Freeman’s maple.
But actually, even though one tree or plant can have many common names, it has only one scientific or botanical name. Red maple is known as Acer rubrum. This accepted name reduces the confusion common names create around the world. And that is why we list both names. If you know the botanical name or simply the first part, the genus, when you visit other gardens, whether in Canada or elsewhere, the name remains the same.
The person then realizes that it really does matter that we know the scientific names of trees.
They usually smile when they understand the basics of plant names. They often point out other “Acers” they have seen while hiking, and then diverge to discuss the Picea and Abies. Many of our regular guests seem to be increasing their knowledge of botanical names. One gentleman told me how, a week after our conversation, he was able to impress his family and friends when they toured the property, with his ability to explain the basics of plant naming and nomenclature.
The public’s fascination with learning about trees does not end there. We have visitors who are starting to use the many different apps on their phones to identify trees and plants on the property, using images of leaves. They can be heard discussing which app is best, and try to stump each other identifying the many species at Mount Pleasant. I may be called on to settle friendly disagreements between fellow IDers.
Many are interested in figuring out what the tree is, but more importantly, how it contributes to the surrounding urban ecosystem. What type of insects and wildlife does it attract? Does it provide habitat? Where did the tree originally come from? How old is it and where can I get one like that?
We have school groups that collect fallen chestnuts and then go back to the classroom to identify the species that exist on the property, based on the fruit they find, not just on the leaves. University students who work at the arboretum for the summer also prioritize learning the botanical name over the common name, as they entertain many inquiries from the public.
It is inspiring to see so many people taking an interest in the trees, not only at Mount Pleasant, but also on their own properties. The importance of nomenclature cannot be understated, since so many people are taking initiative to learn as much as they can about the trees and plants around them. So ask yourself and your staff, “How many trees can you correctly name?” What’s in a name? Everything!
Jeff McMann is Arbor Services Co-ordinator at Toronto’s historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery. He is slated to speak on award-winning maintenance and planting design in the Congress Conference series; register at LOcongress.com.