In search of flowers in the Northeast

Horsetail Family: Equisetaceae

This is an ancient family. It used to include many members and many grew into giant trees. Coal deposits are made primarily of the remains of ancient horsetails. Today, there is only one genus and 23 species. These are spore-producing plants, not flower-producing plants, with hollow, jointed, and abrasive stalks. The abrasive, silica-containing stalks are used by musicians to smooth reeds for woodwind instruments.





Violet Family: Violaceae

Violets have a distinctive, irregular flower with five sepals and five petals. If you can recognize violets, pansies, and johnny-jump-ups, you know this family.





Autumn Crocus Family: Colchicaceae

The autumn crocus family used to be part of the lily family but has since been promoted, like other former lily family members, to it’s own family. There is only one North American species, bellwort. Bellwort is a monocot with lily-like characteristics – three sepals and three petals that are identical in size and color. Found in in eastern woodlands, they bloom in early spring and produce drooping yellow blossoms.





Bunchflower Family: Melanthiaceae

The bunchflower family is another group of lily-like plants that once belonged to the lily family. Subfamilies of the lily family have been promoted to their own family groups. Like all lilies, members of the bunchflower family are monocots, characterized by flower parts in threes with parallel veins in the leaves. Most family members have bunches of little white or greenish flowers – but not trillium, common in the northeast which usually has large, single flowers. Apparently, there is enough genetic evidence to keep the group together and separate from other lily-like plants. Members include trillium, false hellebore, death camas (yes, poisonous), and turkeybeard.





Mustard Family: Brassicaceae

A delicious and important family! Many foods we eat belong to the Brassicaceae family: cabbbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, brussel sprouts, kohlrabe, collards, turnip, arugula, watercress, radish, horseradish, and – of course – mustard! Easily identified by clusters of small flowers with four separate petals and six stamens. Two stamens will be short and four, longer. Flowers are usually white or yellow. There are many weeds in this family, too, including the invasive garlic mustard that can be toxic to some butterflies.





Cypress Family: Cupressaceae

Members of the cypress family are evergreen trees or shrubs. Many species are aromatic and have scale-like leaves rather than needles. Leaves are tiny and wedge-shaped, overlap each other, and cover the branches. They bear pollen-producing cones (male) and seed-producing cones (female) which may or may not be on the same plant. Members of this family in the northeast include white cedar and juniper.





Laurel Family: Lauraceae

Members of this family consist of shrubs and trees. Here in the northeast, they are deciduous but in other places they may be evergreen. Flowers are small and appear to have six petals but are actually tepals, consisting of three sepals and three petals that are indistinguishable from each other. Members in the northeast include spicebush and sassafras. Other members that don’t grow in the northeast include avocados, cinnamon, camphor, and bay laurel. But watch out, our native mountain laurel does not belong to the laurel family but rather to the heather family, Ericaceae.





Moschatel Family: Adoxaceae

Members of this family in the northeast are woody shrubs with clusters of flowers in branching inflorescences called cymes. The individual flowers have five petals fused at the base. They produce colorful berry-like fruits that are favorites of birds, bears, racoons, and mice. The family used to be included with the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, but recent genetic evidence has banished them to their own family.





Willow Family: Salicaceae

This family consists of shrubs and trees and includes willows (obviously), aspens, cottonwoods, and poplars. A key distinguishing feature is the formation of petal-less flowers grouped together into fuzzy catkins. All members of this family are dioecious, with separate male or female flowers on different plants.





Boxwood Family: Buxaceae

This is a small family of evergreen herbs, shrubs, or small trees. Flowers can emerge in winter, can be very fragrant, are either male or female, and lack petals. The majority of plants are dioecious, with male flowers and female flowers on separate plants. Family members include fragrant sweetbox, pachysandra, and boxwood.





Heath Family: Ericaceae

This family includes mostly shrubs with evergreen leaves. Flowers are typically bell shaped with flower parts in multiples of five. Flower color is usually white, pink, or red. This is a large family with many subfamilies and members include heath, red bells, blueberries, huckleberries, azalea, wintergreen, and Indian pipe.





Dogwood Family: Cornaceae

These flowers are not what you think! The showy cream, white, or pinkish petals are actually modified leaves and the “real” flowers are tiny and clustered in the center of the whorl of modified leaves, or bracts. Members of this family include dogwoods and bunchberries and, sometimes, depending upon the classification system, tupelos.


Wood Sorrel Family: Oxalidaceae

Members of this family have three-part leaves, or shamrock-shaped leaves. Not to be confused with clover, which also has three-part leaves. The flowers of wood sorrel are very different from clover. Wood sorrel flowers are solitary, radially symmetrical, and have five petals, five sepals, and ten stamens.





Amaryllis Family: Amaryllidaceae

These family members are monocots with flower parts in multiples of three. Sepals and petals are almost indistinguishable, forming what are called tepals, and appearing to be six colored petals. Once part of the lily family, taxonomists have given them their own family. They typically have onion-like bulbs and juicy leaves. Flowers or flower clusters emerge from a bract, or modified leaf, that wraps around the buds. Family members include amaryllis, snowdrop, narcissus, daffodil, chive, garlic, and leek.





Witch Hazel Family: Hamamelidaceae

In the northeast, there is only one family member: you guessed it, witch hazel. Witch hazel is a shrub or small tree. In September, small groups of flowers emerge with yellow, wavy, strap-like petals. Sepals are small and triangular. Winter hazel, not a native of the northeast, is often used by gardeners in this area for early spring color. Winter hazel blooms before the leaves emerge forming colorful groups of yellow, hanging flowers. The early blooms also attract needed pollinators. It is native of Asia.





Arum Family: Araceae

Members of this family are monocots. The group is distinguished by an unusual flower formation called a spadix. The spadix is an upright finger-like projection with nearly microscopic flowers. The spadix is usually surrounded by a single spathe, or leaf-like bract. Members of this family include jack-in-the pulpit, caladium, calla lily, skunk cabbage, philodendron, and elephant’s ear.





Honeysuckle Family: Caprifoliaceae

This family is comprised of bushes generally with opposite leaves and flowers and berries in pairs or clusters. The flowers have five untied sepals, five united petals, and five stamens. The small, united sepals often remain at the end of the fruit. The family includes honeysuckle, snowberry, feverwort, and twinflower.





Touch-me-not Family: Balsaminaceae

This is a small family with only two members common to the Northeast – jewelweed and pale jewelweed. Easy to spot, these water-loving plants have yellow to orange, irregularly-shaped flowers. Jewelweed has a distinctive spur which pale jewelweed lacks. The leaves wilt with too much sun and the stems crush easily releasing juice. Also known as touch-me-not or impatiens, some species have been cultivated to create houseplants and garden flowers.





Gourd Family: Cucurbitaceae

These family members are vining plants with tendrils and yellow or white flowers. They bear separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Leaves are palmate, which means they branch like fingers on a hand. We recognize their fruits – pumpkins, melons, zucchini, cucumbers, and squash.





Orchid Family: Orchidaceae

We all recognize orchids when we see them as showy specimens from the florist on corsages, in bouquets, or cared for in pots by the window sill. But they are growing wild in the northeast, too. Not as spectacular as what the florist has, but pretty special nonetheless. These family members are monocots, with parallel veins in the leaves rather than branching, sexual parts in three’s, and petal-like sepals. They are distinguished by producing irregular flowers that are not bilaterally-symetrical. Sepals may be green or colored like the petals. The lower petal may be modified into a distinctive “sack” or “spur.” Family members include lady’s slipper and helleborine.





Harebell Family: Campanulaceae

This family consists mostly (but not always)  of regular, bell-shaped flowers with five separate sepals, five united petals, and five stamens. Flowers are generally blue, purple, or white. The lobelias form a subfamily of Campanulaceae, Lobelioideae, and break the rules above, having irregular flowers often with pointy lobes. Family members include harebell, lobelia, and cardinal flower.





Daylily Family: Asphodelaceae

The daylily family and close relatives have been reclassified in recent years. Based on new evidence, the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, or APG, promoted subfamilies of the old family group, Xanthorrhoeaceae, into their own families, Asphodelaceae being one of them. Members of this family are monocots, distinguished by parallel veins in their leaves and sexual parts in threes. Family members include daylily and aloe.





Evening Primrose Family: Onagraceae

Generally, this family has regular flowers with four separate sepals and four separate petals and an equal number of, or twice as many, stamens as petals. Characteristic of this family, the styles of the pistil are fused, but not the lobes, forming a distinctive four-part stigma. Members of this family include evening primrose, enchanter’s nightshade, and beeblossom.





Asparagus Family: Asparagaceae

This family consist of monocots – easily identifiable by the parallel rather than branching veins in their leaves. The family typically has three sepals and three petals that are similar in size and color, plus six stamens and a three-part stigma. Members of this family include asparagus, hostas, lily-of-the-valley, Canada mayflower, solomon’s seal, and solomon’s plume.

Canada mayflower





Mallow Family: Malvaceae

This often showy, five-petaled flower has a distinctive arrangement of sexual parts with stamens fused around the pistil forming a fuzzy column at the center of the flower. The family includes hollyhock, hibiscus, malva, okra, and cotton. Taxonomists include two subfamilies in Malvaceae, basswood trees and cacao trees, although their flowers do not have fused stamens.





Figwort Family: Scrophulariaceae

Members of this family are distinguished by their slightly irregular flowers with five petals united at the base and two petals pointing upward and three, downward. Also distinctive of this family, once fruit forms, the thread-like style remains attached to the tip of the seed-containing capsule. Family members include butterfly bush, mudwort, figwort, and mullein.





Hydrangea Family: Hydrangaceae

We love these family members in our gardens! These shrubs usually have large, dense clusters of showy flowers. Garden varieties have names like PeeGee, Annabelle, oakleaf, mophead, lace cap and come in blues, pinks, whites, pale green, and cream. We love them all! The promiscuous blooms on the outside of the cluster are often sterile, with the action taking place at the center of the cluster. Individual flowers may have four to five petals and the flowers that aren’t sterile may have numerous stamens. Many species are native to eastern, southern, and western states. And many have been “doctored” to meet the demands of gardeners like myself. The family also includes mock orange.





Phlox Family: Polemoniaceae

You can find phlox all over the northeast, from well-groomed gardens to roadside ditches in pale pinks, bright pinks, whites, and magenta. Characteristic of this family are its four or five petals fused to form tubular flowers with flattened faces.





Buttercup Family: Ranunculaceae

Members of the Buttercup family are considered primitive, having characteristics retained from early ancestors. The number of sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils are not fixed and stamens and pistils are arranged in a spiral on a cone-like receptacle as compared to more modern plants with parts arranged in concentric circles and often fused. If you find a flower with many separate pistils, it’s likely in the buttercup family. There are many great garden varieties in the family – anemone, clematis, delphinium, columbine, hellebore, and aconite.
















Loosestrife Family: Lythraceae

This family is distinguished by four, six, or eight petals and twice as many stamens as petals. Stamens are in two rings, and each ring of stamens is of a different height. Many members of the primula family have common names containing the word “loosestrife,” but don’t belong to the Lythraceae family.





Verbena Family: Verbenaceae

These family members are easy to confuse with the mint family because of their square stems. But a closer look at the flowers in clusters reveals only slightly irregular flowers with five united petals. The mint family, on the other hand, has characteristic “dragon-head” flowers with two lobes up and three lobes down.





Morning Glory Family: Convulvaceae

Members of the morning glory family are easy to spot — they are vining plants with heart-shaped leaves and funnelform flowers. They can invade and climb over grasses and flowering plants in meadows. The family includes morning glory, bindweed, and sweet potato. Sweet potato plants are often used ornamentally in window boxes. We also eat the sweet potato’s starchy taproot.





Dogbane Family: Apocynaceae

This family contains herbs, shrubs and trees and is distinguished by having leaves that are positioned opposite each other and the plant producing a milky sap. Flowers are tubular with five petals. The family includes periwinkle and, in a subfamily of their own, milkweed and butterfly weed. The flowers of the milkweed subfamily are unusual in shape. Many members also have a corona, or a crown-like addition consisting of five “hoods” that look like petals and face the center of the flower. The five real petals bend backward. Five stamens are fused to the ovary. Once mature, the fruit turns into a large, dry pod.





Family: Clethraceae

This is a very small family, with only two genera, Clethra and Perdieae. Most species are found in the tropics. They are distinguished by being flowering evergreen shrubs or trees, with small, 5-petaled flowers blooming in fragrant clusters along the ends of their branches.





Loving Linneaus

In 1735  the young botanist, Carl Linneaus,  published System Naturae, and with its publication, modern botany was born. Originally 11 pages long, he worked on the publication throughout his lifetime. The final, 13th edition was published in 1770 and was over 3,000 pages long.

As a busy collector, Linneaus needed a better, simpler way to identify his specimens. Prior to his work, plants were given long, descriptive Latin names and each name was like a new, unrelated discovery. After completing two expeditions collecting specimens, he was the first to drop the lengthy descriptions and to consistently use two simple words to identify his specimens. He had studied the work of botanists before him, including their naming systems, and had collected, identified, discovered, and thought about so many species that he was beginning to see order where those before him had not. One area he focused on was the flowers of his specimens and he began grouping specimens by the arrangement of their reproductive parts — by counting the numbers of stamens and pistils.

Nightshade Family: Solanaceae

Lots of delicious members in this family including tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers. Family members usually have five united sepals and five united petals with five stamens attached to the petals. Usually herbs, but can be vines or shrubs and leaves may be fuzzy. There are some ornamentals in the family, including the petunia. But some members contain stronger stuff, and can be addictive or cause hallucinations, such as tobacco and belladonna.





Buckwheat Family: Polygonaceae

This family is distinguished by having lots of small flowers in clusters or spikes. Oddly, they typically have five or six sepals that may be colored like petals, but no petals. There are usually three to nine stamens. Seeds are generally triangular. The family includes buckwheat, knotweed, lady’s thumb, smartweed, and rhubarb.





Spiderwort Family: Commelinaceae

These family members are monocots, distinguished from dicots by parallel veins in the leaves and flower parts in multiples of three. A characteristic of this family, leaves wrap around stems and petals often appear sparkly in shades of blue, violet, pink, white, but never yellow. A third petal may be greatly reduced in size. Members of this family usually have six stamens that may differ in appearance.





Borage Family: Boraginaceae

This family is distinguished by five united petals with five stamens attached to the corolla tube. Many members are hairy and create sticky burrs. Flowerheads may curl like a scorpion tail with flowers blooming on the upper surface. The family includes beggarstick, houndstongue, fiddleneck, forget-me-not, bluebell, brunnera, and comfrey.





Pink Family: Caryophyllaceae

This family is distinguished by five separate petals often split at the ends. The split may be deep, almost looking like two separate petals as in many chickweeds. The group includes chickweed, Deptford pink, carnation, corncockle, baby’s breath, and soapwort.