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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, lungwort, and comfrey.
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.
This family has yellow flowers with parts in fours or fives with ten or more stamens, making the center of the flower look fuzzy. It’s not a large family with only three genera found in North America. St. John’s wort, or Hypericum perforatum, comes from Europe and is considered invasive in the Northeast.
Primroses are generally herbs or slightly woody plants often found in moist locations. Flowers typically have five petals, five sepals, and five stamens positioned opposite petals. Flowers form in clusters. The family includes pimpernel, primrose, star flower, and loosestrife. But, to keep you on your toes, the family does not include evening primrose and, even though the common name for many members may be loosestrife, they are in the Primrose Family, Primulaceae and not the Loosestrife Family, Lythrum.
This family is, admittedly, a hodge-podge. Based on genetic evidence, several families were broken apart and recombined to form new groups. As of today, the Plantain Family groups similar flowering plants like snap dragon, turtlehead, butter and eggs, and foxglove with some not-so-obvious relatives such as broadleaf plantain and speedwell.
Distinguished by five petals taking shape as banner, wings, and keel – one petal with two lobes form the banner, two petals side by side form the wings, and two fused petals form the keel below. They also form distinctive pea pods and usually have pinnate leaves, meaning a single leaf with many leaflets. They are often climbing plants with grasping tendrils and as legumes, important in the nitrogen cycle, converting nitrogen in their underground nodes with help from nitrogen-fixing bacteria into a form of nitrogen plants can use.
The Madder family usually has flowers with four united petals and leaves that are positioned either opposite or whorled. You can find them while hiking in the Northeast in meadows and woods – bedstraw, bluets, partridge berry, and button bush.
In the Northeast, these family members are herbaceous plants, but in warmer climates they can be shrubs and small trees. Distinguished by 4, 8, or 12 separate petals. Once the ovary has matured, it forms a distinctive drooping capsule. The family includes poppies and bloodroot.
This family distinguishes itself with flower parts typically in multiples of five – five sepals, five petals, and at least five stamens. There may be several pistils or compound pistils that give the flower center a fuzzy look. Leaves are generally oval in shape with serrated edges. This is a large family with several sub-families that include roses (of course), raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, quince, and many fruit trees including apple, plum, peach, apricot, nectarine, and almond. And, like the rose, we find many members in our gardens like lady’s mantle and bride’s feathers.
So many delicious herbs in this family — parsley, dill, cumin, cilantro, coriander, caraway, carrots, celery, anise, fennel, chervil, and parsnip. Seeds, leaves, stems, and roots may be edible and delicious. The family also includes common meadow and road-side flowers such as golden Alexanders and Queen Anne’s lace. Characterized by their flowers in compound umbels, or umbrella-shaped stalks on umbrella-shaped stalks. But don’t eat all plants with compound umbels — hemlock belongs to this family and is poisonous!
Daisies, of course! But asters are highly specialized plants – each “flower” is composed of many flowers, usually a ring of sterile ray flowers, each with one large petal on the outside, and many tiny disk flowers on the inside, each with its own tiny petals, stamens, and pistil. Many members of the family have only disk flowers. Each tiny disk flower produces one seed. Think of a sunflower and the disk of seeds that emerges after the petals are gone. Each aster does the same, but usually on a smaller scale. Look closely!
So many examples here that botanists have divided the family into subfamilies and tribes — including chickory, dandelion, thistle, mutisia, boneset, chamomile, marigold, sneezeweed (I’m not making this up), tickseed, and sunflower.
So many delicious herbs in this group including spearmint, basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, and oregano. Makes me hungry! But the family has other not-so-tasty members common to our gardens and window boxes like coleus, wild bergamot, and lamium. Distinguished by square stalks, opposite leaves, often aromatic, with irregular flowers with five fused petals presenting themselves with two lobes up and three lobes down.