Over the past 3 years I’ve been slowly plodding towards a completed book about the trees of Vermont. The book started as a short, quick reference to help with tree ID, but in its current state is a 600 page tome on all things trees. Somewhere along the way I seem to have sacrificed readability and accessibility for thoroughness. I’ll definitely pare down the final product to a more manageable and useful size. As part of my research, I looked into the origins and meanings of the names of trees. I’ve long been interested in the history of names and as I’d already translated all the Vermont vertebrates (Etymology of Vermont Vertebrates), I thought I’d put together a booklet on the names of Vermont’s trees. 

Some highlights from the dictionary

One of the interesting things about tree names is that most of our trees take their common names from European congenerics (species that belong to the same genus). So our maples (Acer spp.) were named by Europeans familiar with European species of maples (also Acer spp.). Same for oaks, birches, etc. Others have the common name of Old World species that just looked similar. We have redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) after (Cedrus spp.). Not a lot of flair in these names.

The tight clusters of witch-hazel fruits

But there were some really interesting finds (I’ll save my favorite for the next issue): 

  • Syringa (genus of lilacs): takes its name from the myth of the lustful god Pan who chased the nymph, Syrinx down to the water’s edge. She was hidden away as a small shrub by water nymphs.
  • Fagus (genus of beeches): comes from the ancient Greek, φαγεῖν, which means “to eat.” If you ever have the fortune of beating the squirrels, turkeys, bear, and deer to the fall nut harvest, you’ll know why.
  • Hamamelis (genus for witch-hazel): Hama is Greek for together (Spanish speakers will know “gemelos” for twins) + melon which, not surprisingly is Greek for fruit (or apple), referring to the fruits that tend to fuse together
  • Speaking of witch-hazel, witch comes from the Latin wican, as in wicker (like chair), for its pliable branches, not because witch’s use it for dowsing. Willow comes from the same root.
  • Juglans (genus for walnuts): from the old Roman “Jovis glans”, meaning Jupiter’s nut. Interestingly, Jupiter is just the Roman way of saying Zeus pater (or father, as Zeus was father to the gods)
  • Rhus typhina (scientific name for staghorn sumac): Linnaeus himself wrote of the tree, “Ramis hirtis uti typhi cervini” which translates to: “the branch is rough, as when the stag is in velvet.” One of the older (and no longer accepted) scientific names for staghorn sumac is Rhus hirta.

For more, you can download the PDF version here or check out the webpage for a glossary and searchable spreadsheet.

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