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Plant Families -- The Genealogy of Plants -- Part II

Do You Know Who They Are?

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

Just like human family trees and genealogy, the plants in different family trees exist because the members on each branch have similar characteristics.  Sometimes in genealogy you can truly believe from the evidence you have — that a person belongs in a certain family line, only to find out later they are not related. Historically, the same thing has happened with plant family groupings. New discoveries in plant families are still occurring.

If you’ve never studied plant families, here are some simple tips for getting started:

  • While it’s important to be aware of scientific names for plant families, for the average gardener, it’s just something to keep in mind, as it’s usefully especially in making a specific identification of a plant and its family. 
  • Keep in mind that naturalists and botanists long ago decided to group similar plants together for ease of identification. Since this has been going on for hundreds of years, a lot has changed over the course of time. The thoughts on specific  plant species have often changed as new discoveries about certain plants changed the way they were viewed. Many plant families have been and continue to be reconstructed.
  • Learn the difference between monocots and dicots. This simple knowledge about the two basic groups of flowering plants can help you immensely. This is something that anyone who wishes to know more — needs to learn from the very beginning.
  • Learn or relearn the common names for common plant parts, like: stamen, pistil, petals, and sepals are.

Here’s a quick review:

  • Stamen — Male organ of a flower
  • Pistil — Female reproductive part of a flower
  • Petals — One member or part of the corolla of a flower
  • Sepal — Modified outer leaf of a flower
  • Superior ovaries and Inferior ovaries — (Superior) An ovary attached to the receptacle above the attachment of other floral parts; (Inferior) An ovary that lies below the attachment of other floral parts
  • Stigmas — Receives pollen during fertilization
  • Corolla — All the petals on a flower

Learn one plant family at a time, and soon you’ll be an expert and can amaze yourself, your friends, and your family.

The Parsley Family

ParsleyParsley Family — Real Family Last Name? — Apiaceae(Umbelliferae)

Family Characteristics:

  • One of the largest plant families with 2850 members, is one of the easiest to recognize. The flowers are very small, but they are many and are arranged on slender stalks that radiate from the top of a thicker stalk.
  • If the wind blew our umbrella inside out and we stripped off the covering, the framework would look just like the flowering stem of every one of this family — the stick being the stout stem and the ribs, the slender flower-stalks.
  • In most cases, we need a magnifying glass to make out the structure of the flowers clearly. There is a very simple calyx, sometimes having fine teeth along its rim to show that it is composed of five united sepals.
  • There are five very tiny united sepals. There are five very tiny heart-shaped petals of either white or yellow (with some exceptions such as the bluish in sea-holly) and five curved stamens. A quaint pistil with two stigmas is also found.
  • Some of the plants in this family, such as hemlock and cowbane are very poisonous. Yet, others like the carrot, parsnip, dill, celery, parsley, sapphire, and caraway — are most useful for food, health, and for flavoring.

The Daisy Family

DaisyDaisy’s Family — Real Family Last Name?Asteraceae

Family characteristics:

Perhaps largest of all plant families is the Daisy family (aka Composite Family), with a staggering twenty-three thousand species on their family tree. They always have a great number of tiny stalk less flowers and are packed together to form what is known as a flower-head.  What we call a daisy flower, is really a bunch of about two hundred and fifty flowers, or florets of two forms:

  • The outer row with a white strap-shaped corolla
  • The inner one with yellow tube-like corollas

If we cut a daisy right through the middle we can see that this is so, and will understand why the family is often called a “composite” because they are compound flowers.  Remember though, all composite flowers are not exactly like the daisy. Some, like the dandelion, the tansy, and the thistle, have only tubular corollas.

In addition to the flowers name, this family includes (but is not limited to):

  • Asters
  • Dog-daisy
  • Wormwood
  • Coltsfoot
  • Groundsel
  • Chicory
  • Lettuce
  • Sow-thistle
  • Goatsbeard

Pliny’s Favorite Flower Family — The Gentian Family

The Gentian Family — Real Family Last Name? — Gentianeae

Family Characteristics:

To the Gentian Family belong the beautiful blue flowers that give the family its name.  Once upon a time, said Pliny, the historian—“There was a king of Illyria named Gentius, who discovered the bitter virtue of the plant, which allows it to be used in medicine as a tonic.”

  • This four hundred member strong plant family is naturally found in the mountains and temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.
  • It grows also in the Andes, and some forty members of it are natives of North America.
  • Although usually blue, the flowers are sometimes white or yellow, and in the Andes, even red. The ones most familiar in America are the rose pink, the fringed gentian and the bottle gentian. The beautiful fringed gentian comes in the fall, and is a lover of the sun and opens only to its rays.
  • It rarely appears in the same place each year, as it is an annual perpetuated only by its wind-borne seeds.
  • The blind or bottle gentian is of a wonderful deep intense blue. It begins to flower late in August, and northward lasts as late as October, giving bees the last feast of the season.
  • The Swiss Alps and the Canadian Rockies afford wonderful sheets of color in the gentians, blooming often on the edge of the snows.

The Rough-Haired Borage Family

Forget-Me-NotThe Borage Family — Real Family Last Name? — Boraginaceae

Family Characteristics:

The two thousand member Borage Family (we should make its name rhyme with “courage”), gains its name from a word meaning “rough hair” or “wool,” in allusion to the roughness of the foliage of several of its plant family members. A dead give-a-away to members of this plant family tree are tiny stiff hairs on stems and leaves.

  • Other members on the plant family tree are comfrey, bluegloss, lungword, forget-me-nots, and hound’s tongue.
  • Many are the legends associated with the lovely little forget-me-not, or myosotis. The commonest is that a lover, trying to gather some of these blossoms for his sweetheart, fell into a deep pool. As he sank before him, he threw a bunch of the flowers at her feet crying “Forget-me-not!”
  • It was from the forget-me-not’s gold ring around its center that botanists first discovered that the markings at the entrance of many flowers serve as pathfinders to insects.
  • One of the plant family’s members, the Viper’s bugloss — or snake weed, owes its name to the time when people believed that God marked each plant with a sign that indicated its use. The spotted stem and the snake-head seeds of the bugloss seemed to show a cure for snake-bite, and thus the flower was given its name.

The Orchid Family

Wild OrchidThe Orchid Family — Real Family Last Name? — Orchidaceae

Family Characteristics:

This plant family includes about twenty thousand species. They occur both in the tropics and in colder regions. Their flowers are generally beautiful, sometimes very fragrant. Like the Spanish moss, most orchids grow as epiphytes on plants. Most orchids cannot exist without a specific bee or insect also existing in their environment.

  • It’s also important to remember that not all orchids are not true wild flowers. Many that you purchase in stores have been bred for the market. Another key little known thing to keep in mind when it comes to orchids is that orchids are also bred for the spice trade.
  • As for identification when it comes to orchids, they have a pattern of six sepals in two whorls of three. Usually, you’ll find only two stamens and a single pistil.
  • Often, they are grotesque imitations of animal forms. They grow from short or creeping root stocks, tubers, or thickened fibers.
  • Their leaves are undivided, often fleshy, with parallel veining.
  • Some of us are familiar with the varieties of yellow lady’s slipper or moccasin flower, which have also a pink variety as well. The small yellow lady’s slipper is fragrant, and sometimes its sepals and petals are purplish. It can be found as far west as the state of Washington in the United States.
  • In contrast, the showy or spring orchids wear magenta. Then, the purple-fringed orchids are heavily perfumed and needs a visitor with a long tongue to gain its warmest welcome. Another interesting species of this plant family is the beautiful white-fringed orchids, which lives in inaccessible bogs, together with its brilliant sister, the yellow-fringed orchids.
  • The varieties of orchids seem endless. In the north, you’ll find grass pink and Arethusa orchids in damp places. The nodding ladies’ tresses are also to be found in the last of the season.

Why is it that Darwin and other naturalists devoted so much study to the Orchid Family?

Pink orchidNot merely because they are so neither numerous, nor so many climbed, but because of all flowers — they have adopted perhaps the most ingenious and varied devices for attracting insects.  Of the six floral leaves which every kind of orchid has, one is always different from the others. Sometimes it is shaped like a pouch, sometimes like a horn. It may even look like a fringed banner or a broad platform. This is the insect’s “advertisement sign.” Once the insect visitor has alighted a “spring traps, adhesive plasters, and hair-triggers attached to explosive shells of pollen are among the many devices by which orchids compel insects to cross-fertilize them.” Instead of living close to the ground, as so many of the northern orchids do, the orchids of the tropics climb trees to escape strangulation by the dense vegetation. Thus we have the aerial orchid, as contrasted with the terrestrial.

Answers To the Wild Flower Quiz

  1. Agrimony
  2. Sweet Violet (European, not native to the U.S.)
  3. Water Hemlock
  4. Mouse-ear Hawkweed
  5. Honeysuckle (European, not native to the U.S.)
  6. White Dead Nettle
  7. Acrid Lettuce (European, not native to the U.S.)
  8. Silverweed
  9. Woundwort
  10. Creeping Cinquefoil