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Towards an anthropology of plant names: part 2

Author:  Kevin Frediani
Last Updated:  14/03/2022

Kevin Frediani

The first article in this series appeared in the winter ARB Magazine and introduced the reader to a wider body of knowledge than that typically associated with the naming of plants, exploring some of the cross-cultural aspects of human behaviour which underlie the names assigned to plants.

This approach suggests that the categorising and naming of plants are human constructs which have been employed by different cultures, at different times, adopting different methods to meet local objectives; this process has evolved through iterations of indigenous and more recently western advances in human social systems as they try to make sense of the wider environment (Berlin, 1992). This approach also assumes that the audience is mainly people whose cultural frame of reference has been gained through a ‘western’ education and who are open to the idea of human life as part of – not apart from – nature. This is in contrast to the views advanced by classical philosophers and generations of Christian theologians; the dominant cultural inheritance has assumed nature is there to serve mankind (Thomas, 1983; Simmons, 2001:6).

Such an awareness of human life as part of nature allows for further exploration of the different social and natural histories that western and indigenous peoples have employed to inform their classification systems, and their subsequent use or protection of nature (Tuxill & Nabham, 2001). My objective is to follow what the anthropologist Tim Ingold presents as ‘a line of enquiry’ – a way of looking at things, opening up paths of growth and discovery that enable us to not overlook the relationships that exist between people, plants and the landscapes that they inherit (Ingold, 2015). This second article builds upon the first and aims to establish a method for future iterations of this enquiry.

Sorting and classifying are fundamental human activities (Lawrence & Hawthorne, 2006). While children instinctively sort leaves into piles with similar characteristics, scientists naming a new species follow a methodical taxonomy that complies with the strict rules of modern ‘nomenclature’, part of an internationally agreed system – that is, they invent a name from scratch rather than identifying the plant by a previously given indigenous one (Lawrence & Hawthorne, 2006).

This article and the first one are not intended to be a field guide or flora for any specific landscape but I hope they will help you to better appreciate the steps involved in assigning names and perhaps bring a wider frame of interest to the process of gaining the knowledge and field skills we all need to take the crucial step of recognising a plant when we come across it.

Range of Abies (after Farjon, 1990).

Range of Abies (after Farjon, 1990).

Exploring the linguistic thread between oak and fir

The last article featured the oak genus (Quercus) to introduce this anthropological approach, uncovering a line of enquiry that began with a linguistic thread from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root word perkwu, a word that originally meant ‘oak’ and from which derived the concept of ‘oak forest’ – although it was never associated with the word ‘wood’ (Frediani, 2021).

By exploring the origins of words, it is possible to explore the interconnection of previous societies who used the root PIE languages and the environment they lived in. In investigating the origins of the word oak we discovered that it has a lineage similar to the word ‘fir’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2021:1), a word with very different connotations in our modern ‘western’ accepted plant nomenclature. There is a break in our understanding which makes the lineage of the word ‘fir’ and its former association difficult to comprehend at first, but explore a bit further and the connections are there to see. Etymology (the study of the origins and history of words) reveals that the root word perkwu was linked to the source of the Sanskrit word paraktah, meaning ‘the holy fig tree’, as well as to the Latin word Quercus and the Lombardic fereha, which means ‘a kind of oak’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2021:1).

These words are from languages once used in the area around the Sudetes, a mountain range in Central Europe, and this linguistic confluence coincided with the period 3300–400 BCE (before common era), when conifers and birches gradually displaced oaks in northern European forests. ‘Hence it is no surprise that in the early history of the Germanic languages the ancient term for mountain oak and oak forest shifts to denote conifers and coniferous forests’ (Gamkrelidze & Ivanov, 1995).

Studies of the environmental history of Europe reveal a dramatic climate change during the Holocene period. (A useful review was undertaken by McMichael in 2012, with insightful diagrams, accessible online.) During the timeframe that Gamkrelidze and Ivanov talk about, the mean July temperature dropped by 3°C, more than enough to see a displacement of species within the Germanic forests so they changed from being dominated by the shade-intolerant oak to having a major shade-tolerant coniferous component.

Classification of Abies

So, the ancient word that eventually gave us Quercus also gave us ‘fir’, a term we now associate with the genus Abies – a genus first described in this way in 1759 by Philip Miller (1691–1771) in The Gardener’s Dictionary (the 7th and penultimate edition), a result, possibly, of the Roman writer Virgil using the word abies for the timber from which the ribs of the Trojan horse were constructed (Warren & Johnson 1988).

Abies is a genus of 46 to 48 recognised species of evergreen coniferous trees in the family Pinaceae; a further 30 subspecies and varieties are currently accepted in The Plant List. The genus is considered to have three modern distribution centres: South Europe, North America and East Asia. These areas are also rich in fossil records for the genus. Except for the two boreal species – A. balsamea (in North America) and A. sibirica (in Eurasia) – the genus is confined to mountainous areas in the subtropical and temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere (Farjon, 1990). Abies are chiefly found in mountainous regions, from sea level to an elevation of 4700m above mean sea level (AMSL), concentrated between 1000 and 2000 AMSL (15 species) (Xiang, Cao, & Zhou, 2007). Within their natural range all native species reach heights of 10–80m and trunk diameters of 0.5–4m when mature.

In Western and Central Europe, they occur mainly as a component of forests, in which they are often associated with species such as Fagus sylvatica or Fagus orientalis, which in south-eastern Europe and the Turkish Black Sea region is also associated in the main canopy with spruce (Picea spp.), sometimes with a mixture of other conifers, in particular pines (Pinus spp.) characteristic of the montane level of the major European mountains south of the boreal zone (Anon, 2013).

The first fir known to have been introduced to Britain is Abies alba, the silver fir, first recorded in 1603. It has been propagating naturally by seed since 1914, having formerly been widely planted as a specimen tree and in plantations (Hart, 1994:14). It is now categorised as a neophyte (which means introduced into Britain sometime after 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World and the Columbian Exchange began). Today it is little planted because it is more susceptible to rust fungus and woolly aphids than A. grandis and A. procera. The gaunt tops of old trees are often noticeable from afar, although across the UK it is inconsistently recorded and more work is required to understand its distribution (BSBI, 2021).

Common identification features of Abies. (Source: Zelimir Borzan, University of Zagreb, Bugwood.org)

Common identification features of Abies. (Source: Zelimir Borzan, University of Zagreb, Bugwood.org)


Firs can be distinguished from other members of the Pinaceae by the unique way their needle-like leaves are attached to twigs by suction-cup-like structures, and by their annual cones which are held upright on the stems and disintegrate when mature rather than being shed whole. Identification of a species is based on the size and arrangement of the leaves, the size and shape of the cones, and whether the bract scales of the cones are long and protruding (exserted) or short and hidden inside the cone (Christian, 2021).

Abies are mostly conical and very symmetrical in form, especially when young, and the finest are from 70m to 100m high. They produce their branches in whorls or tiers, one tier yearly. Leaves are always linear or nearly so, from 1mm to 3mm wide, with invariably two bands of stomata beneath. They occasionally have lines of stomata above also (giving a white or glaucous look to the foliage). The leaves are always attached to the shoot in a spiral arrangement, but by a twisting at the base are usually made to appear in two opposite sets, the green faces of all uppermost. Female cones are always upright, unlike those of Picea (the spruces) and Tsuga (the hemlocks) – both these genera were often called ‘Abies’ until the middle of the 20th century (Bean, 1976:143).

In modern evolutionary classifications of plants (called phylogenies), firs are most closely related to the genus Cedrus (cedar) – and Douglas firs are not true firs, being of the genus Pseudotsuga (Farjon, 2010; Byng, 2015).

‘Scots fir’ is the old name for the Scots pine even though the species has long been classified in the genusPinus. The etymology here is somewhat confused by the mists of time, but the name ‘Scots fir’ seems to reference not living trees but bog pine: in old Scots language usage, the term fir is mostly used with special reference to fir wood from stumps dug out of peat moss to provide light or fuel (DSL, 2021).

The scientific name of the Norway spruce, Picea abies, suggests an association with firs but it is an unrelated species that is considered to have been native to Britain in previous interglacial periods and has been cultivated in gardens since 995 (Hart, 1994). Since the 1800s, it has been grown to produce timber for joists, rafters and flooring, furniture and boxes, and to make paper. Norway spruce has also been used since Victorian times as a Christmas tree, although it has been displaced by evergreen Abies nordmanniana in more recent times.

Abies cilicica, also known as Cilician fir or Taurus fir. This is a Mediterranean species with glaucous (blue) foliage, found growing in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey today. This one can be found in Dundee’s Botanic Garden. (Kevin Frediani)

Abies cilicica, also known as Cilician fir or Taurus fir. This is a Mediterranean species with glaucous (blue) foliage, found growing in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey today. This one can be found in Dundee’s Botanic Garden. (Kevin Frediani)

Abies balsamea. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Abies balsamea. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Traditional uses of firs

In terms of economic and ecological significance, Abies alba is the main European species selected for forestry from firs that grow naturally in Europe. The strong, lightweight timber is mainly used for construction, furniture, plywood and pulpwood (EUFORGEN, 2021). In traditional use it has been considered an edible tree, the edible part being the inner bark which was formerly cooked, then dried, ground into a powder and used as a thickening in soups and stews, and even mixed with cereals when making bread (PFAF, 2021). It has also had several medicinal uses, similar to the balsam firs of North America that are detailed below. Its other notable uses include as an essential oil, lacquer, in paint, resin and tannin.

As an urban tree, A. alba is sensitive to pollution and the urban heat island impact that mimics conditions we may come to face with climate change. Therefore this is not a species that has been widely grown in the Thames basin in the past, being more suited to establishment in the north and west of the UK.

A 1955 textbook of pharmacognosy (the branch of knowledge concerned with medicinal drugs obtained from plants or other natural sources) was used in the training of pharmacists during the period of transition to modern synthetic medicines and it mentions only one use of Abies, under the reference of oleo-resins, which are a mixture of resins and volatile oils or oily liquids (Wallis, 1955: 491). They contain benzoic or cinnamic acid and are frequently called ‘balsams’.

Oleo-resins are secreted from schizogenous (intercellular) ducts in the bark that form blisters, which were once punctured to collect the turpentine (Bannan, 1936). Canada balsam consists of approximately 16–24% volatile oil mixed with 70–80% resin. It was extensively used to mount microscope slides (Wallis, 1955: 492). Oleo-resin is harvested in the summer and used fresh, dried or distilled for oil. The resin extracted, called Strasbourg turpentine, has been used in perfumery and medicine and for caulking ships. Oil of turpentine remains an important solvent in the paint industry (PFAF, 2021).

All members of the genus Abies have varying amounts of resin or balsam, although the true balsam fir is Abies balsamea, a native of the northern United States and Canada that grows from Newfoundland to Alberta. It is fragrant and is used for pulp and Christmas trees in the north-eastern United States. A comprehensive inventory of uses for the whole plant and parts of it is recorded in the online Ethnobotany Database (2021). However, if you come across the common name balsam fir, don’t assume it means Abies balsamea. It has also been colloquially applied to other firs in various localities: to Abies fraseri in the Appalachians, Abies lasiocarpa in the south-west of the US, and Abies concolor in the Sierra Nevada of California.

Native American ethnobotany of Abies

The Amerindians have historically used balsam firs’ to treat a wide range of ailments. What follows is a selection of indigenous uses extracted from the Native American Ethnobotany Database (NEB, 2021):

‘For headaches, joint pain from rheumatism, colds, coughs, sores, and sore eyes, Balsam fir was also used in sweat-bath ceremonies, hair ointments, and adopted as a wash by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa/Chippewa) of the Great Lakes region. It has been prepared as a decoction usually diluted with alcohol to treat coughs and applied directly to bruises, cuts, sprains, and sores; used in an unspecified way to treat bedwetting and gonorrhea by the Iroquois tribe. Its needles have additional properties, being thrown on the coals during sweat-baths to release vapors to help with congestion, colds and coughs, by unspecified Native American tribes. Also being used to stuff pillows and to promote good health, as a general panacea, and to prevent colds by the Abenaki (Abnaki) and Potawatomi tribes. The needles also being used to make a laxative tea and as a sudatory for mothers after childbirth by the Algonquin tribe, while the smoke of burning needles could be inhaled for colds by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa/Chippewa) tribe.

‘Gum/Resin/Sap was used as salve for sores, burns, and cuts by unspecified Native American tribes. Taken internally for asthma, colds, and coughs by unspecified Native American tribes and used to treat burns, colds, bruises, and sores by the Micmac tribe. Used as an ointment for itches and as an antiseptic by the Abenaki (Abnaki) tribe. Used to make a poultice for sores, infections, insect bites, and boils, and chewed for colds, by the Algonquin and Menominee tribes. Chewed for pain in the kidneys and brewed into a tea for sore throats by the Anticosti tribe. Melted on hot coals with the vapors inhaled for headaches and mixed with bear grease as a hair ointment; used as a wash for sore eyes; boiled twice with grease or suet to create a canoe pitch by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa/Chippewa) tribe. Used internally as a decoction to treat menstrual irregularity and tuberculosis, and used externally for boils, cuts and scabies by the Cree tribe. Poulticed with dried beaver kidneys for cancer and infused with hot milk for colds by the Iroquois tribe. Juiced and used as a laxative by the Malacite tribe. Fresh gum swallowed to treat colds by the Potawatomi tribe.

‘Bark/inner bark was brewed into a tea for chest pains by 19th century doctors on the United States frontier and the Menominee tribe, and into a decoction for kidney troubles by the Anticosti tribe, or into an infusion and taken for colds, coughs, and tuberculosis by the Cree tribe. Infusion was used for gonorrhea by the Malacite and Micmac tribes, also used as a general beverage, often combined with infusion of unspecified spruces and tamarack. Used along with other medicines as a flavor additive by the Menominee tribe. Decoction used to induce sweating by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa/Chippewa) tribe.

‘Twigs and branches were steeped in water as a laxative by 19th-century doctors on the United States frontier. Steam from decoction used as a bath in childbirth by the Iroquois tribe. Used as mats, bedding, and as shelter by the Algonquin, Malecite, and Cree tribes. While buds/cones were used as a diarrhea treatment, colic treatment and laxative by the Micmac tribe, and pieces of root were held in the mouth to treat sores and ulcers by unspecified native American tribes. Used for heart disease by the Algonquin tribe. Brewed into a decoction and used as an herbal steam for rheumatism by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwa/Chippewa) and the Iroquois tribes. Used as thread by the Malecite tribe.’

Plant names explained

I end this article with some examples of Abies species and their specific epithet meanings. This information is gathered from Gledhill’s The Names of Plants (3rd edition, 2019), supplemented by one of my favourite old books, Gilbert-Carter’s British Trees and Shrubs (1936) which, if you can get a copy, is another great work to support your interest in the origins of the names of plants in general and trees in particular.

Common name

Scientific name

Meaning of specific epithet

Silver fir

Abies alba Mill.

White, pertaining to the white-looking bark, presumably reflecting light from its surface in the sun.

Formerly A. pectinatus, meaning comb-like from the arrangement of the leaves.

Balsam fir

Abies balsamea

Yields resin known as Canada balsam.

Colorado white fir

Abies concolor (Gord.) Hildebrand

Uniformly coloured, coloured similarly – in this case both leaf surfaces.

Nobel fir

Abies procera Rehd syn. A. nobilis Lindl.

Very tall, or more correctly excellent.

Korean fir

Abies koreana Wils.

From Korea.

Caucasian fir

Abies nordmanniana (Stev.) Spach

For Alexander von Nordmann (1843–66), zoologist of Odessa and Helsingfors.

Spanish or hedgehog fir

Abies pinsapo Boiss.

From the Spanish name for the tree – pinipares.

Himalayan fir

Abies spectabilis (D. Don) Spach

Admirable, spectacular, good looking.

Giant or grand fir

Abies grandis Lindl.

Large, powerful, fully grown, big or lofty.

Kevin Frediani

Kevin Frediani FArborA is the Curator of the Botanic Garden and Grounds, University of Dundee.


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This article was taken from Issue 196 Spring 2022 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.