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Plant Families - The Genealogy Of Plants - Part I

How Many Wild Flowers Can You Identify?

Answers to be found at the very bottom of this article .

Who Is Family And Who Is Not

The perfume of fresh corduroy or dotted swiss material lingers on my mind, whenever I think of genealogy, both of the human kind, and that of plants. As a child, I often sat with my Grama Daisy, who sometimes worked from home as a seamstress while taking care of her three grandchildren.  Her ever-quick mind was always studying something, and it was there I got a primer education both as a genealogist and as a horticulturalist. Both endeavors require critical observation and comparison skills.

Later on, living in a rural community with a population of only a little over three hundred people, I found myself learning real quick about who is family and who is not. You don’t need dusty and boring family records to know who is related to who in that world. Yet, if you are like my husband, having forty-seven first cousins can be a bit confusing. No doubt at a young age he learned to pay attention to how a person looks.

Apparently, if you’ve got pale blue eyes and a “certain” look, you are of one branch of the family tree. If you are short and pudgy, you aren’t family. It’s not much different, when it comes to plant identification and plant families.  One of the things that I think is lacking today, is a whole lot of adults and children weren’t taught skills of critical observation and comparison which can and should be taught by a closer communion with nature.  For the gardener, knowing a little about plant families can be invaluable in plant identification, growing conditions, and understanding plant relationships. Knowing the genealogy of plants and which ones are on which plant family tree, can make for a lot of fun and enrich your awareness in the miracles of nature

On The Branches of A Rose Family

Rose Family — Real Last Name? — Rosaceae

Family Characteristics:

CinquefoilNot as easy to identify as the so popular rose, some members of this family are as different as any over three thousand branches of a family could be. Remember, strawberries and raspberries are proud members of this plant family.  Sitting side-by-side a cinquefoil, silverweed, and agrimony which are all plants that have yellow flowers — at first glance they seem to resemble yellow buttercups, just because of their colors. Yet, if you were to closely compare them to buttercups, you’d be in for a surprise. They are true members on the family tree of roses.

The key to identification of members of this family is that generally (but not always), they have five petals and five sepals. Most of the members of this family also have superior ovaries.  So, the joke’s on anyone who truly thinks a rose is a rose, because there are so many variations to the rose family tree that you would not expect.

A Friendly Family of Poppys

Poppy Family — Real Last Name? — Papaveraceae

Family Characteristics:

PoppyThe poppy family is a small one, consisting of only about seven hundred and seventy species. Its members may easiest to detect. Its flowers are always of regular shape, and have only two sepals and four petals.

Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to see a field in bloom of wild poppies is not likely to forget that glorious sight.  The sepals drop off when the crumpled petals burst out and smooth themselves. The slender stamens are very many, but they all drop with the petals as soon as the seed-eggs in the big pistil are fertilized.

In the true poppies, the pistil is a rounded or club-shaped knob with a sloping roof, on which the lines running from the center to the edges are the stigmas.  In the Greater and the Horned poppy, the pistil is more slender, and lengthens greatly after the petals have been shed.

In the Horned poppy, which is most likely to be found along seashores, it grows into a curved seed-vessel a foot long. The seed-vessel of the true poppies we all know as a poppy head.

Of course, we all know that the Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is how morphine and opium are derived and are illegal in this country, although grown in many parts of the world.

Not All Members Of The Buttercup Family Look Alike

Buttercup Family — Real Last Name? — Ranunculaceae

Family Characteristics:

Western ButtercupThe over two thousand member Buttercup Family includes not only plants with an open cup-shaped flower, as we all think of, but also such strange shapes as those of the larkspur and the columbine.  It’s hard to imagine, but this family could be compared to being a native tribe, as they are all quite primitive compared to other plant species in other plant families.

They have five sepals, five petals, many stamens and many pistils, as a rule. Each pistil ends in a little point. It’s important to know that they all evolve to their own pattern, and that can be confusing when trying to classify them as members of this plant family tree.  Remember that many members of this family are quite toxic and should not be eaten unless you are an expert.

The Cross-Bearer Family Is Numerous But Unmistakable

Cross-bearer Family — Real Family Name? — Brassicaceae — First Name? — Mustard

Family Characteristics:

Member of the Cross-Bearer Family: Cabbage Photo Credit: Dennis Wood The three thousand plant family members strong include: cabbage, cress, kohlrabi, kale, stock, mustard, radish, turnip and a host of other field and wayside weeds make up the large plant family of Cross-bearers. They are so called because their four sepals and four petals are always placed crosswise. Also, the leaves are positioned opposite, occasionally in basal rosettes.

If we look at a flower of stock of one family member, the wallflower — we shall see what is meant. Shortly after studying this. it should be always easy to tell one of these numerous members of this family of plants when we meet up with them.  There are only a maximum of six stamens, sometimes fewer, of which two are smaller than the others. There is only one pistil, which grows into a long slender pod, which usually splits down the sides to set free the one or two rows of seeds.  Over sixty of the wild flowers found in this country belong to this plant family. With few exceptions, they are not very showy and therefore often mistakenly called weeds.

The Most Irregular Family Of Violets

Violet Family — Real Family Last Name? — Violaceae

Family Characteristics:

African VioletThe two most famous members of this eight hundred plant family tree are African violets and beloved pansies. The well-known Violet Family is quite easily recognized, since its flowers are what are termed irregular, because its petals are not all of the same size or shape.  There are five sepals, five petals, five stamens and one pistil.

Upon studying them, you’ll quickly note that one of the petals is larger than the others. This is really the upper petal, but owing to the fact that the flower-stem always curves over, it appears to be the lowest petal. This petal is continued behind as a spur, or hollow tail. In it is the nectar that attracts insects.  Two of the five stamens have tails also, which extend back into this spur, and all of them end in flat points, which fit closely around the bent pistil. The stigma is simply a hollow ball.

The Family Of Pinks

Pink Family — Real Last Name? — Caryophyllaceae

Family Characteristics:

Sweet WilliamsA larger plant family of over two thousand species is that of the Pinks. On that plant family tree you’ll find easily recognized Carnations and Sweet Williams. However, the truth is, this is a large plant clan, consisting of, just to name a few branches of the family tree:

  • Campion
  • Catchfly
  • Corn-cockle
  • Stitchwort
  • Chickweed

The key to identifying members of this plant family is to look for leaves that are in pairs. Often, the lower ends of the pair are joined together around the stem. The leaves are almost always opposite, rarely whorled. The blades are entire and often stipulate.  The flowers are almost always regular with five petals and five sepals. The petals are fringed, or deeply cleft at the end.

Like Peas In A Pod — The Pea Family

Pea Family — Real Last Name? — Fabaceae — First Name: Legumes

Family Characteristics:

The Pea Family is a very large one and is actually mostly known as the bean family. It includes furze, broom, the vetches, medicks, and clovers. It is the third largest plant family, with a family tree that includes more than eighteen thousand species.  Most of the plants in this family have the leaves divided into three or more leaflets. The flowers are always irregular and of peculiar form. The five sepals are joined together. Of the five petals, one — known as the “standard” is very much larger than the others, two others are known as wings, and the two smallest form the keel.

The last two often have their edges joined together and between them will be found in the ten stamens and the long curved pistil, whose thicken portion — the ovary — grows into the long pod we all know so well in the case of the popular green pea.

These pods are not always as straight as they are in the pea, the bean, and the furze. In the clovers it is short.  In some of the medicks, it is shaped like a reaping hook, and in others it is coiled on itself like a snail-shell. In this plant family are included all the clovers and vetches, rest-harrow, and beans.

Answers To the Wild Flower Quiz

  1. Tansy
  2. Red Campion
  3. Rough Chervil (European, not native to the U.S.)
  4. Cow Vetch
  5. Traveler’s Joy
  6. Thistle
  7. Goose Grass
  8. Creeping Bellflower
  9. Lesser Celandine (European, not native to the U.S.)
  10. Catmint (European, not native to the U.S.)
  11. Yellow Bedstraw

If You’d Like To Know More About Plant Families!

Red Roses - Photographer: Chi Kin Lai

 The Rose Family

 The Poppy Family

The Buttercup Family

The Cross-bearer Family

The Violet Family

The Pinks Family

The Pea (Bean Family)