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The naming of trees

Buying trees can sometimes be confusing because there can appear to be several different names for the same tree or plant, some being common names and some being Latin.

Common names

Most plants and trees that have been grown in an area for many years have local common names.

Common names have the advantage of being widely known, and being Anglicised (usually), are easier to pronounce than Latin names.

The disadvantage of common names is that they are not standardised and not precise. On the other hand, their vagueness can be useful when choosing plants and trees - if you are looking for a crab-apple you may be more concerned with finding one with a particular fruit colour than knowing whether it is Malus baccata or Malus pumila.

Sometimes there is no common name and the Latin name has become the common name, such as with "Hydragea".

Latin names

In addition to the common names, all trees and plants are formally named using an internationally-agreed hierarchical structure based on Latin names, which has been in existence for several hundred years. It provides a clear way to identify plants and distinguish between them.

The hierarchy has several levels, but there are three levels which are most relevant to the gardener: Genus, Species, and Cultivar. The Genus is a collection of plants with similar visible characteristics, whilst the species is a sub-division, containing plants which have very closely similar characteristics and usually can inter-breed.

A good example is the early-season crab-apple Malus baccata 'Pink Glow'.

In this example, the genus is "Malus" and the species within this genus is "baccata". The genus and species are traditionally written in italics. The genus "Malus" contains all crab-apples and mainstream apples. The species "baccata" is a type of crab-apple originating from Siberia, characterised by its white flowers, small edible red fruits, and cold-hardiness.

The third element of interest is the "cultivar" or "cultivated variety". This is often written in single quotes. Cultivars are usually the result of human propagation, cloning, and selection of plant species and are essentially sub-forms of a species. Thus 'Pink Glow' is a form of Malus baccata with particularly large red fruitlets which are a characteristic dusky pink-red colour. Cultivars are invaribly raised because they have an ornamental or productive character which is of benefit to humans.

Cultivar names are not always as consistent as the genus and species, because they may vary from country to country. In our example the cultivar Malus baccata 'Pink Glow' is usually known as Malus baccata 'Dolgo' in North America, reflecting its Russian origin.

Although the Latin hiearchy offers a great degree of precision in identifying plants and trees, it is still far from perfect. A particular issue is the organisation of cultivars and species within the genus Prunus - which contains a great number of important flowering cherries, and has been revised frequently over the last 100 years. Some of these revisions have resulted from advances in knowledge of the genetic relations of species within the genus, but some appear to be simply the result of subjective reassessements by different authors. Whilst the Latin naming system should be purely scientific, in practice the romance and beauty of the flowering cherries seem to exert a strong pull on scientific emotions. The result is that some flowering cherries are known by several different Latin names depending on the age of the reference source.

Plant names on this website

Our website generally uses the common name as the primary description of the tree if there is one, but we always try to include the full Latin name as well, as this is the more accurate way to define the tree or plant in question.

The search system on our website works with both common or Latin names.