We’re delighted to share with you this piece by Kevin Frediani of the University Botanic Gardens about plant names – enjoy!

This short introduction to plant names is a deviation from my normal approach to communicating about the diversity and life histories of plants. This first of what I hope will be a short series of articles shares information not only to explore the origin or ‘etymology’ of a plant name, but also to draw out some of the cross-cultural similarities and differences in the ecological role of plants in their original and cultural landscapes. The aim is to highlight any links that help us better understand the human ecology, where Human Ecology is understood to be the relationships between people and their social and physical environments (McManus, 2009).

This approach is aligned to work I am enabling within the University of Dundee Botanic Garden, born from a desire to help others cross the psychological divide to gaining knowledge known as the phenomenon ‘plant blindness’ (Allen, 2003): a definition that was cautiously coined by two botanical-educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler in 1998, who came to define plant blindness broadly, as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.

Figure 1: Plant Blindness: Why Scientists Who Know Nature Are Becoming an Endangered Species (Image after Cothran, 2018)

Why an Anthropology, as opposed to the usual approach to help plant names become ‘simplified’ as exemplified by Johnson, Smith and Stocksdale (2019)? I hope that this departure from the more traditional reductionist approach that is commonly adopted by western science to catalogue nature, instead provides a more human story of “the naming of names”, which is more aligned but subtly different to the historical contents found in Anna Pavord’s book by the same name (Pavord, 2005). This leads to an approach that looks to use the experiential learning gained from working with trees and adopts a somewhat ‘radical’ approach to help explain the origin of the names we have given to plants and their parts over time. This article takes the experience of other people – wherever they live, whatever their background, whatever language they speak – and takes that experience seriously and also seeks to learn from it? In the hope that such ‘two eyed seeing’ brings interest and pleasure but more importantly curiosity in those who follow this thread.

Two eyed seeing

Drawing from a social anthropological approach best frame within Tim Ingold’s understanding of this term (Ingold, 2018). To “take the experience of other people – wherever they live, whatever their background, whatever language they speak – to take that experience seriously and learn from it” (Meistere, 2020). Two eyed seeing, is derived from both the Cartesian scientific and the phenological Goethean science which is itself aligned to more indigenous ways of knowing.

Goethean Science is a philosophical approach to learning associated with the polymath Johann W. von Goethe; a German 18th Century thinker who believed knowledge is best learnt by experiencing the subject. He developed a phenomenological approach to natural history, an alternative to the Cartesian derived Enlightenment approach to natural science that dominates our way of seeing or at least describing the world in formal education today. Crudely put, Goethean science looks to help the observer see the plant in an intimate first-hand encounter (Seamon, 2005). So the thing you’re observing begins to help you understand how to observe. Simply put, the more you look and engage the more you see and understand. Such Two-Eyed Seeing (Etuaptmumk in the Canadian indigenous language Mi’kmaw) embraces “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing, and to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all,” (Reid, et al. 2021).

The naming of names

To start this immersive journey together, I must start from an assumed position that you have already been introduced to our dominant cultural approach to naming of names, where a plant is given a generic name as a ‘collective name’ for a group of plants. This helps to catalogue the diversity of life, following a particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus, as set forth in his Systema Naturae (1735) and subsequent works (Rouhan & Gaudeul, 2021).

Western received scientific classification presents at the simplest level each plant with a name made up of two parts, a generic (or genus) name and a specific name or epithet. Together, these two names are referred to as a binomial.

It indicates a grouping of organisms that all share a suite of similar characters. Ideally these should all have evolved from one common ancestor. The specific name allows us to distinguish between different organisms within a genus. In written convention binomial names are always written with the generic name first, starting with a capital letter and underlined or more often latinised, e.g. Quercus for the oak genera.  The specific epithet always follows the generic name, starting with a lower-case letter, also in Latin e.g. robur.

This gives the full species name or binomial Quercus robur.

To look at this plant we have to go beyond its binomial name to look at what differentiates it from other oaks. The parts that we can easily see include the flowers, fruits, leaves, buds, form and habitat. All these are used in the practical identification of plants as we shall come to understand (see figure 2 below).

Figure 2: The pedunculate oak has a shorter leaf stalk (petiole) than the sessile oak, and there are obvious auricles at the leaf base (absent in sessile oak). The acorns are produced in groups on a long peduncle, whereas the acorns of sessile oak have no peduncle or a very short on (Photo credit: Wiki Commons).

Where does the scientific name come from? Quercus as a tree genus, is derived from Latin Quercus “oak,” from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) the theorized common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. This suggests its long known original name was kwerkwu-, an assimilated form of perkwu.

A tree of long association with the Indo-European cultures relating to what is now commonly known as the oak tree genus with its acorn. The ‘fruit’ is known as an acorn which botanically is the nut of the oaks and their close relatives (acorns being common in two genera: Quercus and Lithocarpus, both members of the higher order family Fagaceae). The Fagaceae are strongly supported by both morphological (especially fruit morphology) and molecular data as a distinct natural plant group (known as a clade). The nut of oaks usually contains one seed (occasionally two seeds), and is enclosed in a tough, leathery shell, and borne in a cup-shaped cupule. It differs from the other main members of the Fagaceae commonly grown in the UK, with beech, Fagus sylvatica having two seeds and Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, usually having three nuts inside each fruit (Willis, 1973: 452).

In contrast to the Latin name with its ancient origins, the Middle English, oke, derives from Old English ac “oak tree” and in part from cognate Old Norse eik, both from the Proto-Germanic word *aiks (source also of Old Saxon and Old Frisian ek, Middle Dutch eike, Dutch eik, Old High German eih, German Eiche, Swedish ek, Danish eg). It is a word of uncertain origin with no certain cognates outside Germanic. In his exploration of European grazing ecology and forest landscapes Frans Vera, (2000), suggests that while the word itself is uncertain, the name for oak and more specifically the acorn it produced, was an important commodity and measure in the Germanic cultures which came to dominate Western Europe under a feudal system of land ownership and management. Up to the first half of the 18th century, this income was equal to 10–20 times, or even 100 times that from wood; which today is something hard to imagine as food is a globalised project produced intensively someplace else in farms remote from other land uses and disconnected from everyday people who have lost the indigenous knowledge of the land use and language that has been displaced. The special importance of these fruit trees to the lords can be related, in the first instance, to the high incomes from pannage for pigs who fed on the mast of acorns and other fruits of the forest which included below ground pannage of fungi found in the ‘forest’ or ‘wastelands’ beyond the cultivated fields by their homesteads, in comparison with, for example, the importance of wood (Vera, 2000: 213-215).

The usual Indo-European base for “oak” (deru-) has become Modern English tree (n.). In Greek and Celtic, meanwhile, words for “oak” are from the Indo-European root for “tree.” All this probably reflects the importance of the oak, the monarch of the forest, to ancient Indo-Europeans. Likewise, as there were no oaks in Iceland, the Old Norse word eik came to be used by the viking settlers there for “tree” in general.

The English oak’s specific epithet ‘robur’, is connected with the Latin robustus “strong and hardy,” literally “as strong as oak,” originally “oaken,” from robur, robus “hard timber, strength,” also “a special kind of oak,” named for its reddish heartwood, from Latin ruber “red” (related to robigo “rust”), from PIE root reudh- “red, ruddy.”  (“red”) So Quercus robur is the European Oak with hard red heartwood with a rich history that crosses cultures and continues its relevance and use over time as understood by looking at the Latin origin of its name. While in its classification it shares a single nut as a fruit with other oaks and the closely related Lithocarpus genera, together within the family of Fagaceae (the beech family).

Oak is used herein as an example of a species not only to explain the origin or etymology of the common name, but also because it allows the reader to chart the imperial imposition of names across cultures and share something that is lost in their human ecology.

A tree that was readily identified before colonisation by emigrating Europeans who came across familiar looking Native American trees, the oak family (Quercus sp.) has become the accepted name. Imposed globally through an 18th century imperialization of plant knowledge globalisation (Cook, 2009; Lonati,2013). It was already well known with many indigenous names as the most important source of hard mast in hardwood forests across North America long before the arrival of European agriculturalists in the 17th Century. Along with the hickory family (Carya sp.), oaks were the dominant species in the oak-hickory forest, a type of forest cover that once dominated the eastern woodlands of North America from New York to Georgia and from the Atlantic seaboard to Iowa and north eastern Texas. The oak-hickory ecosystem had the largest range of any of North America’s native deciduous forests. Where indigenous names varied with tribal language for example, the Apache name ‘Cheis’ meant “oak, wood” (Roberts, 1993).

In addition to being an important food source for wildlife, acorns were also the staple food of California’s American Indian tribes. Nutritious and easy to gather, the acorns were collected, leached to remove the bitter tannins, and pounded into flour to make acorn mush or bread. John Muir called these acorn cakes “the most compact and strength giving food” he had ever eaten (Logan, 2006). European colonists established the tradition of pannage when they came to the Americas before the advent of 19th Century factory farming systems. Interestingly it is currently experiencing a revival thanks to the superior flavour and nutritional qualities of the resulting pork.

Oak in the landscape

Oaks arose an estimated 56 million years ago (Ma) and have radiated and expanded subsequently across the Northern Hemisphere (Manos & Stanford, 2001; Hipp et al., 2020). Today they extend from the equator (Colombia and Indonesia) up to the boreal regions at a latitude of 60°N in Europe, and from sea level to 4000 m in the Yunnan province in China (Camus, 1936, 1938, 1952; Menitsky, 2005; De Beaulieu & Lamant, 2010).  The genus Quercus is considered among the most widespread and species-rich tree genera in the northern hemisphere, yet due to anthropogenic change it is declining globally through a combination of emergent pests, pathogens and physiological induced strain through the episodic weather associated with climate change (Mitchell, et. al., 2019; Kremer & Hipp, 2020). Although the conservation status of more than half of the world’s oak species is currently unclear work is ongoing through the Global Tree Campaign led by researchers at the Morton Arboretum who have recently published a Red List of US Oak’s and hope to publish a global assessment soon (Jerome, et al., 2017; Global Tree Campaign, 2021).

The native oaks in the UK are Quercus petraea and Q. robur. Quercus robur occurs in 85% of 10 km grid squares in Great Britain and Q. petraea in 67%. Oak trees can live for many hundreds of years and England has more known ancient oak trees than the rest of Europe (Farjon, 2017). Oak trees in the UK are a major feature of internationally important habitats, such as the Atlantic rainforests of the west coast which are renowned for their bryophyte and lichen flora (JNCC, 2014). They are shade intolerant species which do not readily regenerate under their own canopy, requiring germination in open fields adjacent to the parent ‘woodland’ or open grown trees where their acorns benefit greatly from the propagation by animals who seek their rich carbohydrate store.  A recent study found that jays and possibly grey squirrels planted more than half the trees in sites that are left without high grazing or human interference (Broughton, et. al., 2021). The jays and the thrushes basically engineer these new woodlands if we don’t interfere.

Shade tolerance is the relative capacity of tree species to compete for survival under shaded (which is to say, less-than-optimal) conditions. It is a tree trait, a functional adaptation that varies among species. Because of its outsize influence on tree survival and stand growth, shade tolerance is a pillar of silviculture as a plantation approach to manage the landscapes, in contrast to the walking woodlands in which oak is best adapted to thrive.

In the UK this non-woodland tree canopy is estimated to cover 11% of the urban land area and 3% of the rural land area in Britain (National Forest Inventory, 2017) and Quercus petraea/robur is the second most common non-woodland tree after Fraxinus excelsior (7.7% vs 10.3%) (Forestry Commission, 2001). Half of the ancient oak trees recorded in The UK Ancient Tree Inventory (The Woodland Trust, Undated) are in non-woodland ecosystems. Thus, oak trees outside woodlands form an important feature of the UK landscape. They are also an important feature of the landscapes they inhabit elsewhere, where other corvids and mammals help propagate their lineage (Nuzzo, 1986; Marañón, Pugnaire, & Callaway, 2009; Gottfried, & Ffolliott, 2013).

Figure 3: Pre-settlement savanna Oak distribution in the United States, of which 98% had been reportedly lost through a change of land use by 1985 (after Nuzzo, 1986).

Taxonomy and conservation of oak

The practice and science of categorization or classification, known as taxonomy, is complicated as exemplified by oaks that readily hybridize with other oaks within the natural range they are found, making classification difficult. The genus Quercus is native to the Northern Hemisphere and covers evergreen and deciduous species range from cold temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. North America contains the most significant number of oak species, with around 90 growing in the U.S., while Mexico has 160 species, of which 109 are endemic. The second most significant centre of oak diversity is China, which includes almost 100 species.

Many oaks are of conservation concern, the 2007 IUCN/SSC Global Tree Specialist Group published The Red List of Oaks which included 175 of the roughly 450 species of worldwide oaks (genus Quercus). Of those 175 species 67 are found inside the US, which is seen to be the global leader in the modern world but still unable to avoid decline of these iconic species (IUCN. 2015-16). A task that is actively being progressed through the work of the international community of Botanic Gardens currently (Jerome, et. al., 2017).

The naming of names by example:

I end with some examples of Quercus and their species, more correctly specific epithet meanings after Stockdale, Johnson & Smith, (2019) which is a great book to support your interest in the origins of the names of plants in general and trees in particular:

Note: Quercus Genus name comes from the classical Latin name for oak trees.

White oak (Quercus alba) – Species name of alba means white in reference to the light ash-grey bark.

Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) – Specific epithet refers to the leaves being shiny green above and silvery white beneath.

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) – Specific epithet means scarlet.

Blue oak (Quercus douglasii) – Specific epithet is in reference to Scottish botanist David Douglas (1798-1834) who discovered this plant in his North American explorations (Douglas fir is also named after him).

Pin oak (Quercus palustris) – Specific epithet comes from the Latin word for marsh (palus), in reference to a common habitat for this tree.

Red oak (Quercus rubra) – Specific epithet means red.

Netleaf oak (Quercus rugosa) – Specific epithet means wrinkled in reference to the appearance of the foliage.

Post oak (Quercus stellata) – Specific epithet means starlike, probably in reference to the leaf shape, which is actually more cruciform (shaped like a cross) than starlike.

Black oak (Quercus velutina) – Specific epithet means velvety or hairy in reference to the fine hairs found on buds and young leaves. While the common name is in reference to bark colour.


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