Article #67, January, 2003
By Bill Cook
Ever wonder why some trees look similar to others? And why some don’t? Like all living things, trees are grouped into biological categories. Flowers are usually the parts used to distinguish plants from each other, but often there are other characteristics that related species share.
Flowers contain the male and female parts of a plant. Some flowers have both sets of parts. Some flowers are sterile. Individual trees may have only one gender or the other. A quaking aspen tree is either male or female. Oak trees have both kinds of flowers.
A guy by the name of Carolus Linnaeus invented the system we now use to classify living things. He was a humorous Swede that didn’t like Norwegians. That’s why certain unpleasant critters carry names like “Rattus norvegicus”.
A species is the basic unit of plant classification. Similar species are grouped into a genus. Similar genera are grouped into families, then orders, classes, phyla, and finally the plant kingdom. Of course, there are other unit names, as nature doesn’t entirely fit into neat packages. This gives the taxonomists lots to argue about.
The scientific name of every plant is described by a combination of the genus and species. Paper birch, for example, is “Betula papyrifera”. The genus name is always capitalized and the species name is usually not.
Incidentally, the term “specie” is incorrect as a description of a living thing. “Species” is both the singular and plural form of the word.
Common names can sometimes be confusing. There are often multiple names for each species, some of them peculiar to very local areas. For instance, “cat” spruce is more widely known as black spruce. And, tamarack is the common name for a species of “larch”, which is what the genus is called just about everywhere else in the world. “Popple” might be one of four or five different species. “Pine” is even less discriminating, as just about any tree with needles gets called a pine.
Not to mention that other languages have their own common names.
Too many common names is the reason why the scientific guys decided upon a standard Latinized name that is recognized worldwide, at least by other scientific guys.
The largest tree families in the U.P. include five oaks, six maples, seven birches, eight willows, nine members of the rose family, and 17 species in the pine family (but not all are pines . . . go figure). Gheez, no wonder we need scientific names to keep things straight, at least when it matters.
Altogether, the Upper Peninsula has about 70-80 species of trees, depending upon what you count as a tree. About 37 of these tree species are native to the U.P. The rest, obviously, are from somewhere else.
The ten most common trees in the U.P. are sugar maple, red maple, cedar, quaking aspen, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, paper birch, yellow birch, white pine, and white spruce. These “top ten” make up over three-quarters of our forest and all are natives.
Sometimes it really is important to know the correct species. If your tree has a disease, this might be critical in the diagnosis. If you want to make something from maple, you had better be able to distinguish sugar maple from red maple. Paper birch and yellow birch have very different biological characteristics and ecological requirements.
For lots of information about trees of the U.P., visit the U.P. Tree ID website at http://forestry.msu.edu/uptreeid, or contact your county MSU Extension office.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com
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