Gardeners and botanists both use common names as well as scientific names when referring to plants. Using common names for plants is more widespread in North America than it is in Britain, even among botanists, and even though common names are often simply made up if there doesn’t seem to be one already in use. But common names are confusing. After all, there are more than twenty different plants, from around the world, that are called “bluebells”.
Native Americans must have had local names for many native plants when settlers first arrived in North America but the settlers didn’t bother to learn them and simply made up new ones - or, as with birds like the robin, transferred a familiar common name to a plant that looked vaguely similar to one from back home.
So when I saw a large mature sycamore (above) way across the Delaware River the other day, its white branches ghosting against the oaks and maples behind, I was reminded of this: in Europe, sycamore is used for Acer pseudoplatanus; here in North America sycamore is Platanus occidentalis. The leaves are very similar, so I presume settlers simply transferred the name. But surely, native Americans must have had a common name for P. occidentalis. After all, I’m told they used to tap it for sap in the same way as sugar maples.
In Europe, P. occidentalis is the plane tree and its hybrid with P. orientalis is a familiar city street tree. In Paris, large plane trees in the streets are pruned – literally – into a plane with all the branches parallel to the street and none overhanging.
The sycamore of Europe, Acer pseudoplatanus (below) - whose botanical name, by the way, literally translates as “the maple that looks like a plane tree”! - is a menace. There’s a huge one in our neighbor’s garden in England and its seedlings spring up all over the place. What’s worse is that they get their new roots down deep quickly so that even when they’re less than a foot high they can be tough to extract, especially between the cracks in paving.
I’d much rather have the American version.
Acer speudoplatanus image (above) © Jean-Pol Grandmont. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.