Why do trees have so many different names? How do you tell the difference between spruces and hemlocks and pines? What features are used to identify trees? These are some of the many questions important to plant ID, covered at a recent Name That Tree workshop of OSU Extension at the OSU-Mansfield campus.
These workshops, organized and taught by Kathy Smith of OSU’s School of Environment and Natural Resources and her helpers, are a good way to get started or to review and polish your skills at knowing these big perennial woody plants that surround us in woodlands and landscapes.
First, let’s look at the sometimes confusing aspect of those multiple names. As the Chinese philosopher Krishtalka noted: “The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.” Fair enough. But if you have visited an arboretum or botanic garden recently, you will notice that the plant labels have a multitude of names.
Here is an example from Ohio State University’s Secrest Arboretum at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. Our example is a familiar species, with the common name of redbud. The Latinized botanical name for redbud is Cercis canadensis. The cultivar (cultivated variety) name of our example is ‘JN2,’ with a plant patent number often attached to it, in this case PP#21,451. The trademark name of this particular redbud is The Rising Sun redbud. Say what? Let us deconstruct.
• Common name: Redbud. This is the name most people use for this small native tree, common in Ohio woodlands, especially as an understory tree in association with flowering dogwoods. It is often noted as the Eastern redbud to distinguish it from the western redbud (C. occidentalis) and other species in the genus Cercis. It has pinkish buds and wonderful reddish-pink flowers.
• Botanical name: Cercis canadensis. The two-part Latin name for the Eastern redbud is also known as the scientific name for this species. The idea behind scientific names for plants and animals was advanced by the 18th century Swedish botanist Linnaeus to reduce confusion and improve communication.
Don’t believe me? In Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, he indicates that Nymphaea alba has 245 different common names (including European white water lily) in just the four languages of English, French, German and Dutch. This tower of botanical Babel obviously needed a better system. Common names are wonderful, but often communication demands clarity.
• Cultivar name: ‘JN2’ (PP#21451), in our example. As tree lovers know, there are many different types of Eastern redbuds. In fact there is something of a renaissance of redbuds in recent years, from weeping redbuds to purple-leaved redbuds, to yellow- and apricot-leaved redbuds.
This is because horticulturists, practiced in the nurture of nature, have noted variations that come about through genetic recombination and mutations. If they successfully can propagate these new variations, typically through asexual propagation, such as clonal cuttings and then grafting to a rootstock, then they may be able to patent their new introduction to the horticultural trade.
Cultivars are designated by single quotation marks. In the case of the redbud in question, its name is sometimes termed a nonsense cultivar name, given that ‘JN2’ is not very descriptive, compared to the cultivar name of, for example, Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ which refers to the old standby purple-leaved Japanese maple.
Why did Johnson Nursery of Tennessee decide to use a nonsense cultivar name (‘JN2’) instead of something more descriptive of what they say is “A new and distinct variety of Cercis canadensis, an Eastern Redbud tree found and introduced by Johnson Nursery?”
Typically the reason for this is that the nursery that introduces a new plant has control of the propagation for sale and other commercial use rights of the plant only for the 20 years afforded by plant patent regulations. After 20 years, other horticulturists can propagate and sell the plants without going through the patenting nursery. Which brings us to …
• Trademark name: The Rising Sun redbud. Johnson Nursery chose as the trademark name a descriptive term which relates to its features, “orange new growth developing into bright yellow, then into yellow green, finally maturing into light green with some lighter and darker speckling on the leaves.” I also like their description of “golden tangerine heart-shaped foliage in summer extends through fall; new leaves are bright rosy apricot.”
A key factor of trademarks is that they can be renewed, not just for 20 years, but forever. This is done because 20 years is often deemed inadequate for recouping the costs of discovery, propagation, production, and marketing of a new tree, so the nursery will add a trademark name that other growers must pay the original nursery to use.
So, that is why trees have so many names. This brings us to our other questions, about pine and spruce ID and other identification characteristics. Alas, we must delay that until another Almanac, except for a short primer: Pines have needles in bundles; spruces, hemlocks and other conifers have needles singly attached to the stems. Features used to identify trees include such items as foliage, flower, fruit, form, buds, bark and thorns.
Now, for the last word about names and any word, from Lewis Carroll speaking as Humpty Dumpty:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write: Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers’ Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send email to email@example.com or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.