A Friendly Introduction to Taxonomy
For Wood and Woody Plants
Have you ever looked at scientific names for woods and felt like saying
............."That's all Greek to me!"?
If so, you were not at all far from the truth. The words and phrases that were decided upon are from
Latin and Greek languages. Trying to put a deck of cards together in the right order after they all
slipped onto the floor is a frustrating enough sorting process alone. Imagine, then, trying to distinguish
apart, identify and put in their natural order the many millions of different life forms on the earth. Now
that is indeed a massive challenge.
That is exactly the massive task that scientists have been facing since the 1700's. To do this, they
realized that they would need a naming process for each type of living organizm that would be stable
and allow millions of names to be assigned to millions of different living things --- from super small
viruses to the largest of creatures, massive (now extinct) dinosaurs. The development, use and study
of such naming conventions is called Taxonomy.
The first and most famous researcher was Carolus Linaeus, a Swedish botanist. He devised a two
part naming system that, although now much refined is still part of the backbone of naming all living
plants. The first part of the name is called the Genus. The second part of the name is called the
Species part or epithet. There are some minor oddities in the spelling of how these are used. Singular
is called Genus and Species, but it takes a little to to get used to the fact that the plural of these two
are called Genera and (no change) …. Species. Just use these words enough and they will become
natural to you even if they are not at first.
There is such an incredible diversity of life forms on our earth ---- in the air, on land, in oceans and
other bodies of water. They exist from very small viruses and bacteria through to fungus, insects of
many sizes, small fishes to very large ones, birds, insects and plants from very small to triees that are
the largest living things on the earth. To accommodate so many different branches of life types took
inventing a whole large organizational filing system in the form of an inverted tree. There are many
levels of classification in the – "Tree of Life". The top levels are very general and cover broad
associations of life types. The further down the tree we go, the more specific it gets. By the time you
go near the bottom at the species level, we are finding names listed (as species) that finally pin down
conclusively a unique life form with its own unique qualities. Here is one example of a complete tree
for one species:
- Kingdom: Plantae
- Division: Magnoliophyta
- Class: Liliopsida
- Order: Cyperales
- Family: Cyperaceae
- Genus: Cladium
- Species: Cladium costatum
For our present interest, we are interested only in plants that grow on land and specifically, woody
plants. Therefore we do not have to bother with the upper organizational levels of Kingdom, Division,
or Class. In fact, even the order that a wood belongs to is only occasionally refered to in literature.
There are times when it is helpful to know what family a wood is part of. Often there are some
properties woods have in common within a same botanical family.
The Genus Level --- And Public Understanding
It is at this level that the public can finally identify with reasonable ease. The genus level is only one
level higher from the species level that identifies exact trees and therefore exactly singular woods. It is
at the genus level that we can refer to all oaks, all pines, all maples, all rosewoods, all ebonies and so
on ---- items that much of the public has some understanding. The genus name also happens to be
what makes up the first part of a species name. Lets look at a few examples:
Some genus names of commonly know woods include:
||Botanical Genus Name
Such names may seem strange and hard to remember at first. After using them for any length of time,
you will find that they do become familiar --- or at least for the common woods that you knew before
anyway. How many do you have to know? I will leave that up to you and to the level of intensity on
how much you work with wood. Ultimately, so far I have identified over 3,300 different woody genera
(remember, plural of genus is genera). There are perhaps as many as 90,000 different kinds of trees
in the world --- so there are that many different woods. They vary from trees that provide massive
volumes of timber every year all the way down to smaller trees that are of only passing academic
interest. Your own interests in wood will guide you to those woods you will learn more about. Just
absorb a bit more at a time and over a few years, you can be surprised how much you do know.
The Species Level
Finally at last, we come to the Species level, the level that pins down a name for each individual tree
and wood. It does so with such accuracy that often using botanical names takes identification further
than most people are used to in their daily use of wood. Commercially, many woods are bundled and
sold together that have very similar properties. Often for successfully selling them and even using
them, there is little further need to identify a quantity of wood closer than that.
We started out saying that scientists found reason to develop a large classification system that could
encompass all living forms. It must tell apart accurately the different kinds of life forms and down to a
point of accuracy of having names for each single identifyable type of life. The system that was
started by Linaeus has undergone much revision and development into a sophisticated organizational
method of defining all life forms. Now with the whole template of naming (ie. Botanical naming or
Taxonomy) we can say "Job well done!". The different levels of the botanical tree accommodate
everything from the largest and broadest categories of living things down to very specific names and
identification for each and every living organizm ever found or ever will be found. Refinements to the
system are always being found and applied, too.
Lets look at how simple species names are and some of their general guidelines that defines a
- Species names have up to 3 naming parts for a full species name format:
- Genus part
- Species part (sometimes called the epithet)
As briefly mentioned before --- if you know the genus, you already have half of what you need for a
fully qualified species name. A third part of a species name, the authority refers to the fact that the
original researcher of that species (and following researchers) has the right to append their name as
the third part of the species name. If you are new to botanical naming, I overly concerned about this at
all. The use of authority names is used mostly in the academic world. It is as accurate to use a
species name made up of only the two first parts --- the genus and species or epithet. It is good to
know, though, that if you see a species name that is followed by one or more people names, don't let
that throw you.
Unless you are amongst those researchers who work in detail with trees (and wood) and deep
taxonomy, you can drop that part of the name with no serious consequences. Many if not most
species listings are only just two part. It is just as well to not bother with authorities as a novice
because some of these "authorities" names can get rather long, messy and hard to understand if you
are not a taxonomy specialist. One researcher or team of researches tend to append their name also
if they have done some additional significant taxonomy research past the original reasearcher that
discovered and named the species. By the way, authorities are used (when they are) not just
appended to species names but also for genera, families and (rarely) for orders.
Other Taxonomy Levels
For labeling wood samples and working with wood collecting, the organization levels we have just
gone through will suffice for many purposes. Researchers deeply immersed in trying to furtherly
forward the world's knowledge of all living things have found reason to create and use other levels
(such as sub-families, sub-genera, tribes, sub-species) but these additional levels we do not have to
be very concerned about as wood collectors. There are three levels below the species level, though,
that you will likely come across frequently, so they should be mentioned:
- Hybrids – Some trees (especially of the same genus but sometimes even broader) can
cross pollinate or reproduce to create an intermediate new plant with some of the genetics
from each parent and properties reflecting properties of both parent tree.
- Varieties – are plants that show variations naturally from what most of their species are
identified as. This does not involve cross breeding, nor does it need to involve deliberate
human intervention. If deliberate variations are encouraged by human intervention, they
can then be called a cultivated variety (see below). Fairly often, species have multple
varieties. They are named with the species name first followed with "v." or "var." and the
- Cultivars – refer to plants that have been taken out of nature and cultivated over the years,
often to develop certain desireable characteristics. It is short for "cultivated variety". One
species can have a number of different recognized cultivars. Typically, the species name is
given first followed by "cv." and then the cultivar name.
The woods of many species within a genus are often so similar as to be indistinguishable without the
leaves, bark, fruit and other parts of a tree that it came from. The various types of hawthorne trees
can be a challenge even for professionals to identify for instance. It varies, though. Rosewoods have
a general theme in appearance but they do vary quite a bit in colour and sometimes in typical grain.
However, wood in hybrids and especially varieties and cultivars is essentially indistinguishable. It is a
person choice in growing a wood collection whether you will even bother to include cultivars and
There is perhaps somewhat more justification to include hybrids in a collection. The proper name of a
hybrid is not the name of either parent plant but is a concatenation of both names or (sometimes) a
new name is given to the hybrid. A large X is used to join the two names to show that it is a hybrid.
Some examples include:
- Cupressocyparis - are hybrids between Chamaecyparis x Cupressus
- Taxus x media (Hybrid Yew)
- Abelia grandiflora is a hybrid of 2 chinese species, Abelia chinensis × Abelia uniflora
- Crataegomespilus dardarii - a cross between Cratsegus monogyron + Mespilus germanica
- Magnolia x soulangiana - - a cross of Magnolia deudata x Magnolia liliiflora
By the way, in a discussion of a number of species of the same genus, number of species within a
family, etc. once a name has been mentioned at least once, sometimes the first part of the species
name is abbreviated to the first letter of the genus. The last hybrid, for example can be abbreviated to
Magnolia x soulangiana - - a cross of M. deudata x M. liliiflora
This works because the repeated genus name is first named in full. If it wasn't, you wouldn't have a
hope of knowing just what species they really are referring to.
Why Use Botanical Names Anyway?
There are no rules established about using common names for trees and woods. Even more so, there
is no international effort at all to assure that common names do not end up being used for different
woods in different regions or countries. Instead, this lack of any coordination gives rise to all kinds of
problems and contradictions on how trees and their woods are named ---- using common names.
Many woods become known by many different names, especially in warmer climates where there is
more biodiversity. In some cases, the list of different common names can be quite long, reflecting
what the wood is called in different countries, languages and even different local tribes. If you buy a
wood that you think is new to you (say for manufacturing or crafting) because you were told that it has
a name you have not heard of before, you cannot be guaranteed that this is not a wood that your
company or you already stocks and uses.
A very durable and now well accepted wood for flooring was known as Jatoba for years. However,
buyers of the flooring largely do not trust woods unfamiliar to them. To boost sales, the wood has
since become even more commonly known as Brazilian Cherry. However --- you will never find any
cherries on the trees this wood comes from! It is a common occurrence to name tropical woods with
common names resembling the woods of more northernly climates. It is also common to apply well
known and respected wood names to less known woods or even as groups of woods. So called
Philippine Mahogany is not one or two species --- but upwards of 200 –300 different kinds of wood!
The colour, hardness and other properties of so many woods can be considerably different. That
makes quality control and reliabilities a lot harder to manage. You could also end up paying a much
higher price for a wood just because it is presented to you with a different name from what you are
Confusion becomes even more common because there are numerous woods that are given the same
or similar name. When Australia became a penal colony for Britain, for instance, the new settlers,
coming from England knew the woods from this temperate climate nation. It became natural, although
erroneous, to apply similar names to the many new trees and their woods that they were surrounded
with in Australia. A "Silky Oak" is not a true oak. Sassafras in Australia, although having some similar
appearances, is actually very different from true Sassafras that grows in eastern North America.
Scientific or equally called Botanical Naming, although not perfect is just the opposite. It was started
by Linaeus and since continued with the whole basic intention of getting to where each life form,
including plants, would have a unique name and identification. It is based on international recognition
and cooperation --- a lot more than you can say for common names. Even though research articles
can be written in different languages, the botanical names are the same througout the world. That
diminishes a tremendous amount of confusion compared to the equivalent common names in use.
Common names have no rules and no body to enforce naming at all. Although you do not need to
know all the rules and guidelines in existence for botanical naming, they are extensive, thought out in
immense detail and under considerable scrutiny and revision. When someone starts using a common
name for a wood --- for good or for bad, there is no authority that can declare a name invalid. Since
there are so many different woods and trees and since researchers are stretched throughout the
world and over more than three centuries, there is ample opportunity for errors to develop. Indeed,
that is exactly what happens. Some errors are because of isolation of more than one researcher for a
wood from another. However, there is international cooperation to work closer and closer to ideal
More often, though, continuing research and new botanical discoveries end up producing evidence for
the need of reclassifying plants. Although there are times that it can be a challenge to keep up with all
the naming changes, compared to the unruly way common names are used, we can see that the
scientific community is aware of correcting names and identification of trees (and woods). The
scientific community is very disciplined – and on a world wide scale. A botanical name can be
recognized no matter what the language that an article and or paper is written in or what your own
native language you use. It is based on universal names in which most names rarely ever change.
Botanical identification within scientific circles is even more accurate yet. When a new plant (including
a tree) is found, parts of it (such as leaves, seeds, fruit and the wood) are put safely away. These
collections of plant parts are called vouchers. They cannot be just representative parts from similar
trees from anywhere. They must be specifically from the plant or plants that were used to identify the
new genus and/or species. A place where many such vouchers are stored is called a herbarium. That
allows researchers to go back anytime, even many years later, to reexamine the nature and qualities
of a plant. Numerous times that can lead to a re-evaluation of decisions made by a prior researcher or
researchers. That is a far advancement compared to the total lack of plant material kept with common
names. The methods used by scientific researchers are as sophisticated as any you will ever find.
Lets summarize some of the concepts that we have presented:
A person does not have to decide to use only one
or the other. Both common names and botanical names have their advantages and uses.
- - Common names may satisfy much of the common commerce and use of wood but they
are open to a lot of potential error, lack of precision and therefore introduce confusion.
- - The botanical naming system for all living things has been carefully desiged with accuracy,
versatility, expandability and world recognition in mind. It is totally a deliberate system in
contrast to the totally random way common names are used with no unified controls or
regulations on their use.
- - Although the total extent of botanical naming is quite complex ultimately, learning basic
essentials is quite easy. A large part of this article has been dedicated to exatly that --- an
elementary introduction to botanical naming and taxonomy.
- - Common names are more used in commerce. Since they exist and are used with no
guidelines, they require a lower learning curve but at the expense of numerous limitations
- - Botanical naming is far more robust, accurate and internationally recognizable while
common names are --- well --- commonly understood and used by the masses despite the
confusion and inaccuracies they bring.
For those of you who have wood collections or the intentions of building up a wood collection, it does
not take very long before you come to understand that collecting wood by common names is totally
unreliable and an insufficient way of distinguishing each true wood from all others. Having at least a
novice knowledge and willingness to use botanical names soon becomes a necessity and a blessing
rather than a burden.
For those who have thought learning the essentials of botanical scientific naming was too complex for
them to learn and for all those who could not see any reason for having to use them, it is my hope that
this article will have been reasonably convincing that the learning curve is not that hard and that there
can be valuable reasons for having and using at least an elementary form of scientific naming for
trees and the woods they yield.