Learn Plant Families to Help You Grow as a Gardener

There are always lots of things to learn as a gardener, and many of them can only be learned through doing—through actually getting out there and getting your hands dirty. But there are some things gardeners can learn from reading, watching, or listening.

While most of us are not botanists and may have less interest in studying botany or plant biology in depth, learning plant families and other botanical basics can often really help us to grow as gardeners.

What Are Plant Families?

When we garden, we often simply learn the common names of plants. But they also have formal scientific, Latin names. These names help to categorize plants, and while not always fixed, those categorizations can help make things clearer for identifying, using, and studying those plants.

Specific plants are specific varieties of particular species. Species are members of a certain genus. And each genus belongs within a broader plant family.

For example, plants in the Lamiaceae family (mint family) include garden herbs such as lavender, basil, mint, oregano, thyme, and rosemary.

Plants in the same family all share certain physical characteristics that can help us to see their relationship to one another and which help us to identify them. In the Lamiaceae family, for instance, members will generally have aromatic leaves, among other shared characteristics. (See more on the mint family below.)

Why Learn Plant Families?

Learning plant families can be a great step forward for those who want to be able to identify more of the plants around them.

Even when we cannot identify plants down to species and variety, knowing which family they belong to can often give us a lot of the information we need. When we can identify different plant families we can narrow down the field to identify specific species.

This will often help us, even when we don’t know the specific species at first, to understand the broad characteristics of the plant we are looking at, and what will make it happy, where it might be placed in our gardens, or which neighbors it will like.

Take, for example, plants growing in a kitchen garden. When we know a little about plant families and which species belong to which family, we can understand which plants need to be rotated in crop rotation plans and the order in which to plant them. It can also help us to develop successful polycultures and companion planting plans.

How to Learn Plant Families

Learning plant families is something that we can all do in several different ways. But I find that a good way to begin is by researching the plants you already have in your garden.

Find out which family the different plants belong to, and then take a good long look at those plants to see their common characteristics. By comparing different plants in the same family, you can often easily begin to build up a picture of the traits that belong to plants in that family.

10 Plant Families To Learn

Apiaceae (The Carrot Family)

Also known as umbellifers, plants in this family include carrot, parsnip, celery, parsley, angelica, anise, caraway, coriander, cumin, dill, and fennel—but also a number of extremely poisonous and phototoxic species. Mostly herbaceous annuals, biennials, or perennials, plants in this family have, among other things, flowers that form inflorescences in terminal umbels with tiny five-petalled flowers.

Asteraceae (The Daisy Family)

Sometimes also referred to as the composite or sunflower family, most species within this family are herbaceous plants, though some can also be vines, shrubs, or trees. Their primary characteristic is having flower heads with sometimes hundreds of individual florets surrounded by a whorl of protective bracts, which are typically daisy-like in appearance.

Brassicaceae (The Cabbage Family)

Sometimes known by the older name of Cruciferae, this family of flowering plants are mostly herbaceous plants, though some can be shrubs. This family contains a great many common vegetables as well as some ornamental garden plants. The leaves are simple, though sometimes deeply incised. Flowers with four petals are borne on terminal inflorescences and lack bracts.

Fabaceae (The Pea Family, Legumes)

Many plants within this family are agriculturally important for their edible yields and often also for nitrogen fixation. Most plants within this family are herbaceous perennials, though there are also plenty of trees, shrubs, and vines. The members of this family tend to have distinctive “pea” flowers.

Iridaceae (The Iris Family)

This family’s members are perennial plants with bulbs, corms, or rhizomes. They grow erect and generally have grass-like leaves. The petals have multiple hues, which gives them their name, from Iris, the Olympian god who carried messages to earth along a rainbow.

Lamiaceae (The Mint Family)

Aromatic in all parts, members of this family are often culinary and/or medicinal herbs. The family includes mint, basil, rosemary, sage, savory, oregano, marjoram, thyme, hyssop, lavender, and more—and also includes a number of other edible and/or ornamental garden plants. The flowers are typically symmetrical bilaterally, with petals fused into upper and lower lips, and the leaves are opposite, with each pair at right angles to the previous ones or whorled.

Liliaceae (The Lily Family)

The lily family has large flowers with parts arranged in threes, linear-shaped leaves with veins parallel to the edges, alternating on the stems or in a rosette at the base, and they typically grow from bulbs, sometimes rhizomes. Many plants in this family are important ornamental garden plants.

Ranunculaceae (The Buttercup Family)

Mostly herbaceous annuals or perennials, occasionally woody climbers, plants in this family usually have solitary, bisexual flowers, typically with four or five outer flower segments. Flower parts are usually free, not fused. A number of flowers commonly found in gardens belong to this plant family.

Rosaceae (The Rose Family)

The rose family contains not only roses but also many edible plants grown in temperate climate gardens, including apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, almonds, loquats, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and more. Many fruit-producing plants belong within this family.

Solanaceae (The Nightshade Family)

Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants (aubergines), and several other commercially important plants belong within this family. But so do some highly poisonous plants. Solanaceae exhibit a large morphological variability.

Learning a little about these and other plant families will certainly stand you in good stead as a gardener.

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