What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

  • December 26, 2012
  • by lwinkler
Recently, while rummaging through a whole pile of aging stuff looking for something else, I came across a leaf collection I prepared for a 9th grade vocational agriculture class some 35 years back.  There are 50 entries in the book, each with the trade or common name of each species, along with a list of possible uses.  Directly under each trade name, I had meticulously scribed in parentheses the Latin name for each.  Since I couldn’t see where I had gotten extra credit for that monumental effort, I am guessing it was required!  At any rate, it reminded me that in our industry, we are beginning to see more and more references to species in binomial nomenclature.
Taxonomy on the Rise
Sounds like an announcement from the IRS, but actually, taxonomy is the science of classification of all living things, with specific reference in this context to the binomial nomenclature assigned to trees.  Historically, most folks in our industry have shown little interest in scientific names for decorative species of faces or solid lumber, preferring instead to use the more common trade names.  While this line of thinking has actually caused us little grief, there has always been some level of confusion and potential for misinterpretation and even downright deception on occasion.  The use of scientific names greatly reduces and should actually eliminate the margin of error.  Now, with the maturing of certified wood standards and the advent of controlled wood in support of world wide conservation laws, this system will become very important for all of us in the trade.
So What IS in a name?

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  This line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is often misquoted as, “a rose by any other name is still a rose” as a matter of convenience when meaningful.  Now, that statement in reverse would be meaningless, wouldn’t it?  Calling something a rose does not make it a rose unless it is a rose!  In that light, calling something Brazilian cherry doesn’t make it cherry. Calling it royal or even Philippine mahogany doesn’t make it mahogany.  And calling it Tasmanian oak doesn’t make it oak.  Of course there are cases where the rose has other names, such as breu and almecega, lapuna and fuma, and purpleheart and amaranth.  In our world, we often find such trade names

Enter Carl Linnaeus

It was Linnaeus who in 1735 determined that in order to avoid confusion it was necessary to assign every living thing to a natural classification ending with a double name that would be unique to the individual organism to which it was assigned.  His original system broke every plant or animal into categories beginning with the most general classification and ending with a very specific designation.  This system included Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.  That system has remained in tact through modern times with the exception that the categories are now called Kingdom, Division, Subdivision, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.  Some listings show sub classes, sub-orders, and a number of other aberrations, but essentially, you get the point.  Under this system, the full classification for American black cherry would be:

Kingdom: Plant                     
Division: Spermatophyta; 
Subdivision: Angiospermae         
Order: Dicotyledonous; 
Family: Rosaceae; 
Genus: Prunus 
Species: serotina Ehrh. 

For most purposes, the binomial nomenclature, or the last two names in the sequence, consisting of the genus and species is all that concerns us.  In this case, American black cherry, or what we call simply “cherry” isPrunus serotina.  The component names are typically derived from ancient Latin or Greek, and are normally italicized.  Only the genus is capitalized.  Any abbreviation such as Ehrh stands for the name of the botanist who first authored the taxonomy of that particular species, and in this illustration represents Jakob Ehrhart, a German botanist and student of Linnaeus.   When a species can be part of a grouping of species which are commercially indistinct in veneer or lumber from the same genus, the name of that genus may be followed by the abbreviation “spp.” in italics.  For example, red oak, which actually comprises about 15 different species of oak trees, would be commonly writtenQuercus spp. if no exact species is identified.  If, on the other hand, we know with no uncertainty that the species is swamp chestnut oak, the binomial nomenclature would be Quercus michauxii Nutt.  If a species is one of a list of species within a given genera, that genus need be spelled out only once, followed by the first letter capitalized, a period, then the name of the species. For example, American black cherry and European cherry would be listed as Prunus serotina and P. avium respectively.

OK…so why is this important to me?

With the growing interest in protecting our forest resources from illegal logging and our industry from unscrupulous practices comes more and more scrutiny on the part of both government and non-government organizations.  The Lacey Act is a US law that makes it illegal to harvest, possess, or transport listed species.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) requires meticulous documentation for harvesting and trade in protected species.  The United States Green Building Council’s LEED program provides for credit for use of certified wood.  Where species and silvicultural practices do not meet certification criteria, the demand for Controlled Wood with applicable documentation is growing.  In each example, to avoid confusion and to clearly identify the species in question, use of the binomial nomenclature classification ensures accuracy.
For a link to one list of botanical names click here.

Ang Schramm

Director of Technical Services, Columbia Forest Products

  • Author of A Complete Guide to Hardwood Plywood and Face Veneer
  • Past Panel Products Director HPVA
  • Past Chair HPVA Technical Committee
  • Director and Instructor Columbia Forest Products University

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