What’s in a name?

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

The bark of a maple

I’ve been thinking of names a lot recently, wondering why people seem to go out of their way to make things confusing. When I’m teaching classes or leading walks, I often talk about how yellow-rumped warbler is a great name for a small songbird with a yellow patch on its butt. But Swainson’s thrush? That’s not nearly as helpful.

It is the same with trees. Striped maple has lovely stripes on its bark. This tree is doubly well named, as it is often called “goosefoot” maple, accurately referring to the shape of the leaf. On the other hand, the name mountain maple only tells you it is a maple. It should be called “shrubby,” or “shorty” or “maple that grows along streams.”  

And don’t get me started on eastern larch (which is also called “juniper,” which it’s not, and “hackmatack,” which refers to a krummholz-like area of tangled woods where it grows). This species just seems to go out of its way to be confusing. You’ll often hear people referring to “hardwoods” and “softwoods” when they’re talking about trees, especially when they’re getting in their winter’s supply of firewood. These categories are meant to divide deciduous trees and coniferous trees. Larch is a coniferous tree, as it has seeds in cones. But it is also a deciduous tree, being the only native conifer that sheds its needles every Autumn. And though it is technically a “softwood,” it is harder than many of our hardwoods, especially species such as trembling aspen, striped maple, and balsam poplar. Clear as mud?

Leaves of a maple

And what about shrubs? Fireberry hawthorn is a beautiful native shrub with long thorns. It is in the apple family and the fruits are called haws, and fireberry refers to the brilliant orange berries that hang on over the winter. Was that so hard? The same goes for winterberry holly (though our native holly is deciduous, unlike most of the domesticated hollies, but don’t get me started on that…). Anyway, it has lovely orange berries that hang on over the winter.

If you are sensing a pattern here, you’re right. I prefer names that help you to remember or understand what you are looking at. I am fine with people having flora or fauna named after them in Latin. But for common names, it is good to have them useful.

Let’s look at some other favourite names that I find very helpful.

Ironwood is one of our rarest native trees and the wood feels almost as strong as iron. I remember shaking a young one at the Macphail Woods arboretum and feeling such resistance to movement—unlike a birch, which would easily sway under pressure.

Chokecherry (also called bitter-berry) is definitely not your domesticated sweet cherry, or even a sour cherry. Once cooked, it makes a great jelly or syrup. But eaten raw, you understand why it bears the word “choke” in its name. It is both sour and astringent.

The native aspens (or poplars) all have descriptive names that aid in identification. Trembling aspen leaves rattle in the slightest breeze. The leaves of the large-tooth aspen do indeed have large “teeth” along the leaf edges. And the relatively rare balsam poplar exudes a “balm” or scent from both the buds and the leaves.

Someday if I discover a new species of oak, I won’t mind at all if it gets named Quercus schneiderii, but I really hope it would have a useful common name—chipmunk oak, large-leaf oak, or anything that would help a budding naturalist.