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So what is an Arborist?

Tom D



Arborist? Whats in a name?

Writing the text for this site has caused me to ponder, are we Arborists? Tree Surgeons? or perhaps Arboriculturalists? We are all of these things, and probably a few others as well; forester, wood cutter, lumberjack, the list goes on.  In the internet age what we call ourselves is important since people will search the net for specific terms, and we don’t want to miss out by calling ourselves tree surgeons when our customers are searching for Arborists. Analysing popular search terms has raised more questions than answers.




An Arborist at work?


Unlike other professions we don’t have a registered name, you can’t just call yourself a chartered surveyor without being a chartered member of RICS for example, but anyone can call themselves an arborist or tree surgeon so I suppose its down to us to choose the term that best fits what we are.


To me an Arboriculturalist isn’t someone who chops trees down, he’s more of a boffin, a scientist who takes an academic approach to tree work, surveying trees and writing reports, analysing samples and identifying tree diseases and Fungi.  Its not a popular search term on the net so we perhaps don’t need to worry about this one.


I consider the Arborist as being perhaps one step down from the Arboriculturalist, academically speaking at least, he gets his hands dirty but he still knows his stuff, the O.E.D says “a scientific student or cultivator of trees” so not really the grubby chainsaw wielding type then. Although many now call themselves arborists in preference to tree surgeons, “tree surgeon” is still the most popular search on Google, with arborist coming a poor second, so while we may wish to associate ourselves with the more professional sounding “arborist” title our customers still see us primarily as tree surgeons. At least the term “wood cutter” is seldom found in the search box, although much more common in Scotland than in England and Wales apparently.


So whats wrong with being a tree surgeon? well there are a lot of less than professional types out there who use that term, so perhaps thats the reason we are seeing more and more arborists as companies wish to disassociate themselves from the guys who will tar your drive, fix your roof and of course cut your trees. I have always called myself a tree surgeon if anyone asks, I suspect if I said arborist I would get a lot of “so whats that then” questions, to which the reply would likely be “you know, a tree surgeon”, Perhaps “a tree surgeon with brains” would be better.  Surgeons have brains, though, especially brain surgeons, who in conjunction with rocket scientists are the bench mark by which all other professions are judged. So whats wrong with being a tree surgeon? Are there really that many cowboys out there using the term? Its hard to tell.


Lumberjack is still quite a popular search term on the net, more popular than arborist in fact, to me this has always conjured up an image of a bearded man mountain in a red plaid shirt walking through groves of giant trees in the pacific north west, I’m surprised it scores so highly. Up till now I hadn’t mentioned it anywhere on the site at all. Might need to change that!


I have lost count of the times people have said “I thought there’d be three of you… you know tree fellers Geddit!” Thankfully its only a few comedians who look for the phrase, it hardly registers as a search term.



A lumberjack?

So what are we?

Our problem is some of what we do is boffinery, and some is brutish tree killing. We do carry outtree surveys and write reports, and three of our staff are  degree educated, with qualifications in arboriculture, but they all climb trees and use chainsaws, some have been seen in red plaid shirts, two have beards, and one is a man mountain, none of then thankfully are cowboys. It just gets more confusing! Perhaps “Arborist” is the best catch all term for us although its clear that I will have to try and optimise the website for most of the terms mentioned above, and I’m not sure I want to tell people “I’m an arborist” I still feel like a tree surgeon.  Still this article will have hopefully increased our internet search rankings for all the terms mentioned above so perhaps thats all that matters.


Tom Dixon.












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Sounds like a L6 question that Tom!


"...An arborist, by definition, is an individual trained in the art and science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees. Arborists are knowledgeable about the needs of trees and are trained and equipped to provide proper care..." 



"...An arborist, or (less commonly) arboriculturist, is a professional in the practice of arboriculture, which is the cultivation, management, and study of individual trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants. Arborists generally focus on the health and safety of individual plants and trees, rather than managing forests (the domains of forestry and silviculture) or harvesting wood. An arborist's scope of work is therefore distinct from that of either a forester or a logger, though the professions share much in common..."



And The Arboriculturist's Companion - A guide to the Care of Trees NDG James ISBN 978-0-6311-6774-7 also looks at the question.


The term Arborist, and certainly Arboriculturalist, tends to result in having to dumb it down to Tree Surgeon in most conversations anyway so what's the point calling yourself something that people don't recognise or understand... 

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HI Tom, respectfully, I think its the work activity  that pertains to the  role that determines "what" we are, or rather how we refer to ourselves. Your staff with degrees, in arb or related presumed, could indeed be arborists or arboriculturists dependent on whether they are cutting trees or inspecting them and writing associated reports etc.


A previous thread suggested that a (qualified) tree surgeon is someone who know 'where' to cut, the arborist being the tree surgeon who understands 'why' (perhaps supported, for instance, by the ISA Cert Arb or RFS or l2 'academic' qual.)  


When we previously revised the 'Choosing Your Arborist' leaflet, I pressed to change the title to 'Choosing Your Tree Surgeon (Arborist)' because it's aimed at the general public as tree owners and, predominantly, that is how most still refer to / know us.


Just my tenpenneth, FWIW.


Cheers, n hope you're well,


  • Like 2
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Hi Tom, great post. I think it is really interesting that you think of the internet age and what people are searching for. My job as a recruiter means I have to be mindful of this when advertising. My clients often want a fully qualified Arborist - all CS qualifications included. But I advertise for tree surgeons as that gets the most hits in a search.

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When I first went to college the head of arboriculture told us we should aspire to be arborists, not tree surgeons.  That may have been his way of emphasizing the importance of knowing one's subject, then again it may just have been snobbery.


Among arborists, "arborist" is well understood and it's the word I'd use naturally.  For any other setting I'll say "tree surgeon".  To my mind the terms are entirely synonymous.


I am most certainly not, and never will be an "arboriculturalist": that would be someone who practices "arboricultural" and is a linguistic nonsense.  I think.  But then again, what do I know, I'm just a "tree guy".

Edited by onetruth
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9 hours ago, Gary Prentice said:

Think the word you're looking for is arboriculturist.

Gary he is not looking for it in fact he used it in the first line of the post and elsewhere ...:001_tongue:  Oh . I see , spelling . Sorry mate . Take the pokey tongue back !

Edited by Stubby
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"Arboriculturist" is a word that just about  o-one has heard of, although it is formally used in BS5837 and a lot pf people who are doing 5837 surveys do not fall within the defined term (but fair play to them as no-one on the receiving end seems to give a damn). "Arboricultural consultant" is more useful because at least it emphasises that it's about consultancy rather than contracting, and escapes the linguistic trap that Tom has fallen into.


My dictionary says a tree surgeon is "someone who prunes and treats old or damaged trees in order to preserve them". B ut since there is no legal restriction on getting a chainsaw from B&Q and calling yourself a tree surgeon to sound all fancy, the tree butchers of suburbia were always going to latch onto that term.

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Does anyone think the issue lies not with arboriculturist, but rather the word arboriculture?


I suspect a lot of people don't recognise horticulturist, which I think has been in common usage for a lot longer, so the derivatives of arboriculture- arborist, arboriculturist & arboricultural consultant are puzzling to most. 



I've used arborist as 'occupation' for years, the look of puzzlement that it invokes amuses me.:D If I'm feeling particularly mischievous I use arboriculturist.



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