In contrast to a wood’s common name, using the scientific or botanical name is a much more precise way of referencing wood: the only downside is that it’s Latin.
Many systems have been used to classify plants, ranging from Carl Linnaeus’ work back in 1735, to Arthur Cronquist’s system in the latter-half of the twentieth century, as well as the more recent Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) taxonomic system. All systems attempt to categorize individual plants from the broad to the specific. Most modern systems use some form of the follow hierarchy:
Kingdom > division > class > order > family > genus > species
The name is listed in two parts: [Genus species]; so in the example of White Oak, it would be listed as [Quercus alba], where Quercus is the genus of the tree, and alba is the species.
When two or more species are included in a genus under a single common name, only the genus will be listed, with a “spp.” afterward. For example, Purpleheart is comprised of many similar species, and is listed as: Peltogyne spp.
Looking a step above the genus level, it’s occasionally helpful to know the family of a given wood species. For instance, the Meliaceæ family is sometimes referred to as the mahogany family, and contains many genera bearing mahogany-like wood. However, just because two or more genera are contained in the same family does not necessarily mean that the wood itself will closely match in characteristics; the Fabaceæ (legume) family contains hundreds of genera and thousands of diverse species.
Sometimes botanists find more evidence which warrants a tree to be placed in a different taxonomic group than what was previously assessed. In these instances, the older scientific name can sometimes come into widespread use, thus making it hard for publications and others to ensure up-to-date information. Such older scientific names are referred to as synonyms, and if a synonym has come into widespread use, it will be noted after the current name, such as: “Calocedrus decurrens (syn. Libocedrus decurrens).”
Ironically, as more information and techniques are used to help classify trees, some species seem to have quite an unstable scientific naming history. For example, Alaskan Yellow Cedar was initially placed in the Cupressus genus, and later in the Chamaecyparisgenus (where it remained for roughly 160 years). Recent reclassifications have moved it from Chamaecyparis to a newly created genus named Xanthocyparis, and then to Callitropsis, and finally back into Cupressus. However, such taxonomic diversity is rare, and on the whole, scientific names are the most reliable and clearest way of expressing precisely which wood species is being referred to.