Did you know that willow and witch hazel both mean the same thing? Or that serviceberry has nothing to do with burying your dead at the first thaw? Or that Pan’s lust gave us the scientific name for lilac? The Dictionary of Vermont Tree Names is a thorough* examination of the meanings behind the common and scientific names of Vermont’s trees.

* As thorough as it is, it’s surprising how many origins and translations of tree names are obscured by time, and we may, for example, never know the why behind pin in pin cherry. Check the Resources below for some of the more reliable sources I leaned on for this.

DOWNLOAD THE BOOKLET

It’s available as both a full booklet PDF and a Google Sheet. You can use the spreadsheet to search for species by common or scientific name. Enjoy!

Google Sheets Icon   

An Etymology of Vermont’s Verterbrates

Want more etymology? Check out the full guide to translating the major taxonomic groups of Vermont vertebrates, available as both a full booklet PDF and a Google Sheet document.

Vertebrate Dictionary

Glossary of Scientific Names

What follows is a glossary of all of the generic and specific names for Vermont’s common wild and naturalized trees. But I strongly encourage you to download the full PDF version which is significantly more thorough and describes origins and meanings behind common as well as scientific names.

Full Tree Name Dictionary

~ A ~

abies: abeo (L): rising one (for tall tree or ship), alternatively aei (G): always + bios (G) life, for always alive or evergreen

acer: Unclear, possibly from acro (G): sharp, top, point

alba: albus (L): white

alleghaniensis: alleghany: Allegheny Mountains (south of Pennsylvania Allegheny is often spelled Alleghany), generic toponym + –ensis

alnifolia: alnus: genus of alders + folium (L): leaf

alnus: el– (PIE): red or brown (as with elm) giving both “alder” and the Latin “Alnus”

alternifolia: alternis (L): alternate + folium (L): leaf

amelanchier: amelanco (French): little apple (apple in Greek is μήλο)

americana: america: America, generic toponym + –anus

~ B ~

balsamea: balsam (Semitic): gummy or resinous aromatic healing balm, in reference to the balm of Gilead (referenced in the bible). Balsam is used to refer generally to resinous plants.

banksiana: banks: after Sir Joseph Banks, and English botanist (1743-1820) + –ana

betula: betula (L): birch, derived from the Gaulish word, betu (as in bitumen), which means tar

bicolor: bi (L): two + color (L): color

~ C ~

canadensis: canada: Canada, generic toponym + –ensis

caroliniana: carolina: Carolina (the state), generic toponym + –ana 

carpinus: carpinus (L): the hornbeam (may be derived from PIE, kar, meaning hard)

carya: carya (G): nut (related to kernel)

cathartica: cathartis (G): purgative

celtis: celtis (L): Pliny’s name for the unrelated lotus tree (Ziziphus lotus), which is similar to the lote tree, or European hackberry (C. australis)

cinerea: cinereus (L): ash-colored

cordifolia: cordi (L): heart + folium (L): leaves

cordiformis: cordi (L): heart + formis (L): form or shape.

cornus: cornus (L): hard as in horn (cf unicorn), though this is debated

crataegus: crato (G): strong, for the wood. Some sources suggest cratos is combined here with –acis (G): thorn for the hard woody thorns

~ D ~

decidua: decidua (L): falling off, deciduous

deltoides: delta (G): Greek letter, △, triangular + –oides (G): likeness

~ F ~

fagus: fagus (L) name for beech, which stems from the Greek, phagein, which means to eat; it’s also the Celtic god of the beech tree

frangula: frangulus (L) fragile

fraxinus: phraxo (G): obstruction or fence, though this is likely from use of the wood to make spears + -inus

~ G ~

glauca: glauco (G): gray, bluish gray

grandidentata: grandis (L): large + denti (L): tooth + –ata

grandifolia: grandis (L): large + folium (L): leaf

~ H ~

hamamelis: hama (G): together + melon (G): apple or fruit, as the fruits grow in tight, nearly fused clusters

~ J ~

juglans: Juglans (Roman): “Jovis glans”, meaning Jupiter’s nut

juniperus: Unclear, possibly from junio (L): young + parere (L): to produce/bear, alluding to its evergreen habit

~ L ~

laricina: larix (L): larch + –ina

larix: larix (L): common name for the genus 

lenta: lentus (L): flexible, pliant

~ M ~

macrocarpa: macro (G): large + carpus (G): fruit

mariana: mary: after Maryland, geographic toponym + –ana

morus: morus (L): unclear, possibly from mor, the old name for the tree (morbeam is an archaic name for mulberries), alternatively, could be from the Latin “mor” for late, in reference to the late budding of the buds, or the Celtic “mor” for black, in reference to the fruits of many mulberries

~ N ~

negundo: nirgundi (Sanskrit): for the Chinese chaste tree (Vitex negundo).

nigra: niger (L): black

Nyssa: Nyssa (G): in Greek mythology, the Nysiades were water nymphs who lived in Nysa, which was also the birthplace of Dionysus. Members of the genus are often found in wetlands.

~ O ~

occidentalis: occidental (L): of the west + –alis

ostrya: ostrya (G): word for a hardwood tree, derived from osto (G): bone (reference to the tree’s exceptionally hard wood)

ovata: ovum (L): egg + –ata

~ P ~

papyrifera: papyrus (G): paper + fero (L): bearing

pennsylvanica: pennsylvania: Pennsylvania, geographic toponym + –icus

pensylvanica: pennsylvania: Pennsylvania, geographic toponym + –ica

pensylvanicum: pennsylvania: Pennsylvania, geographic toponym + –icum

picea: pix (L): pitch

pinus: pinus (L): name for the genus, likely a cognate with pitch, in reference to the resinous trunks

platanoides: platanus (G): genus for sycamores, in reference to their wide, flat leaves + –oides (G): likeness.

platanus: platys (G): flattened + –anus

populifolia: populus: genus for aspens/poplars + folium (L): leaf

populus: of unknown origin and meaning, possibly from ptelea (G): elm

prunus: prunus (L): plum

pseudoacacia: pseudo (G): false + acacia after the acacia trees of Africa, which have similar leaves and thorns; locust taken from the true locust, or carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua).

~ Q ~

quercus: quercus (L): name for the oak, not entirely clear what its origins are; possibly Celtic for “beautiful tree”

~ R ~

resinosa: resinosa (L): resinous

rhamnus: rhamnos (G): generic word for thorn bush

rhus: of unknown origin

rigida: rigida (L): stiff, rigid

robinia: Robin (G): after the French botanists Jean Robin (1550-1629) who Linnaeus attributed with introducing black locust seeds to Europe + –ia (L): noun suffix to Latinize a word;

rubens: ruber: red (L)

rubra: ruber: red (L)

rubrum: ruber: red (L)

rugosa: rugosus (L): wrinkled

~ S ~

saccharinum: saccharon (G): sugar + -inum

saccharum: saccharon (G): sugar

salix: salix (G): possibly from the Greek, σαλεύω, to stir or sway

serotina: serotina (L): late

sorbus: sorbus: fruit of the true, from the true service tree, Sorbus domestica. Service and sarvis corrupted from sorbus.

spicatum: spica (L): spike + –atum

strobus: strobus (G): cone

sylvatica: sylva: woods/forest (L) + –ticus

sylvestris: sylva (L): woods, forest + –estris

syringa: Syringa (G) pipe. The syringa is a Greek wind instrument similar to a flute, and Ovid relates the story from Greek mythology of Pan chasing the nymph, Syrinx, down to the water where the nymphs transformed her into a lilac to protect her.

~ T ~

taxus: taxon (G): bow (though alternate etymologies suggest a link to either toxic – the whole tree, save the red aril, is toxic – or taxus – a reference to the flat arrangement of the needles on the branch)

thuja: thuja (G): ancient Greek name for arar, a morphologically similar conifer found in the western Mediterranean

tilia: teil (French): name for the tree, Tilia the Latin form. In Greek, πτελέᾱ means “elm-tree”

tremuloides: tremula (L): shake, tremble + –oides (G): likeness

tsuga: tsuga (Japanese) name for the genus, possibly a cognate of taiga

typhina: typhina (L): velvety

~ U ~

ulmus: ulmus (L): elm, which possibly means red or brown

~ V ~

velutina: velutinus (L): velvety

virginiana: virginia: Virginia (the state), geographic toponym + –ana

vulgaris: vulgaris (L): common or commonplace

Resources

There seem to be quite a number of false etymologies out there (in particular the myth about serviceberry). I tried my best to use primary sources, experts, and peer-reviewed resources for this. Here are some of my favorite etymology and plant name resources

BOOKS
  • Ayto, John. Word Origins.
  • Borror, Donald. Dictionary of word roots and combining forms. Mayfield Publishing Co., 1960 (link)
  • Dickason, Frederick. Two Centuries of American Tree Names (link)
  • Griscom, Ludlow. Common sense in common names. The Wilson Bulletin. 1947 (link)
  • Marafioti, Richard. The Meaning of Generic Names of Important Economic Plants. 1965 (link)
  • Merriam-Webster. A Dictionary of Prefixes, Suffixes, and Combining Forms from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. 2002 (link)
  • Nowick, Elaine. Historical Common Names of Great Plains Plants, with Scientific Names Index. Volume I: Common Names. 2015 (PDF)
  • Palmer, Abram. Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words Perverted in Form Or Meaning, by False Derivation Or Mistaken Analogy. 1890 (link)
  • Skeat, Rev Walter. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 1882 (link)
  • Woodhouse, S.C. English-Greek Dictionary: A Vocabulary of the Attic Language. George Routledge & Sons, Limited, 1910. (link)
  • Yoon, Carol. Naming Nature. W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.
WEBSITES