[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 54 – Learning Plant Families

Learning Plant Families

Nature’s economy shall be the base for our own, for it is immutable, but ours is secondary. An economist without knowledge of nature is therefore like a physicist without knowledge of mathematics.”

— Carolus Linnaeus

Chicory and Bergamot

Chicorium intybus (Chicory), a member of the Asteraceae family and Monarda didyma (Bee Balm), a member of the Lamiaceae family.

Why Learn Plant Families?

Learning plant families is a useful tool for being able to identify key features of herbs and how they relate to the families they belong to. By learning these key characteristics and common shared uses, it is possible to learn to identify plants by family and know what they can be used for even if you do not know the exact genus/species of the plant.

For example, members if the Lamiaceae family (Mint family) have square stems, simple opposite leaves and many are aromatic. Aromatic plants indicate plants that are high in volatile oils. Volatile oils in Mint family plants are spicy and stimulating, which cool the body through opening pores and increasing perspiration. Many members of this family are also great digestive aids and because of this, many are what we know as ‘kitchen’ herbs such as Basil, Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, and Oregano.

Malus spp. (Apple) is in the Rosaceae family.

Malus spp. (Apple) is in the Rosaceae family.

The History of Botanical Plant Families and Genera

We have Carolus Linnaeus to thank for our modern day plant classification, he is considered the father of taxonomy. Linnaeus, also considered one of the best botanists in the world, created the system of classification, using a method called binomial nomenclature.

Linnaeus classified organisms by shared characteristics, creating 7 levels of classification: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion) is a member of the Asteraceae family, Lamium amplexicaule (Henbit, on the lower left and right of photo) and  Lamium purpureum (Purple Dead Nettle) on the righthand side in the middle are both members of the Lamiaceae family.

Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion) is a member of the Asteraceae family, Lamium amplexicaule (Henbit, on the lower left and right of photo) and Lamium purpureum (Purple Dead Nettle) on the righthand side in the middle are both members of the Lamiaceae family.

How to Get Started Learning Plant Families

There are over 600 plant families in the world! That’s a lot of families and can sound overwhelming when you start. When teaching about plant families, I like to start with some of the more commonly found ones such as Asteraceae, Lamiaceae and the Rosaceae families.

Get familiar with common plant terms. This is important for a good identification, especially when you start comparing your notes with the field guides. If you don’t know a botany term, you may misunderstand what a characteristic is. Common terms include leaf arrangement (opposite, alternate, whirled, basal, spiral), leaf types (simple, compound) and flower parts (pistils, stamens, stigmas, styles, anthers, petals, sepals, bracts) to name a few.

Get to know the common characteristics of a family you wish to learn about. Make a list of those common characteristics.

Now that you have made your characteristics list and gotten familiar with botany terms, go out into your yard with this list and see how many plants you can find that fall into those categories.

Once you have found all the plants in your yard that you think fit into that family, grab a field guide for your area and compare your notes to the plant guide. If you don’t know what your plant is, use a field guide that lists plants by families. There are some great online websites as well that make identifying plants easy, to help double check what you’ve found.

One important thing to remember is to not try to make a plant fit into a family. So many times I have seen people try to make a plant be something it’s not. I’ve been guilty of this myself. If the plant is missing those common characteristics, chances are very good that it is not the plant you want it to be.

It can seem intimidating at first but the more you test yourself, the easier it will become. Over time, you’ll be able to add more plant families and you’ll find that learning to identify plants becomes simpler, just by knowing plant families.

There are many fun resources for learning plant families, I’ve listed them at the end of this article for you to access. I highly recommend Thomas Elpel’s books, cards and video for getting started and he makes it fun and simple to learn the 8 most common families.

Prunella vulgaris (Self Heal, Heal All, All Heal) is a member of the Lamiaceae family.

Prunella vulgaris (Self Heal, Heal All, All Heal) is a member of the Lamiaceae family.

Resources for teaching plant families:

Plant families and identification

Tom Elpel’s book and card set Shanleya’s Quest is a great starting book for kids and adults alike

More advanced students will enjoy his Botany in a Day book

Watch Tom in a brand new video teach plant families and explain how to use the card deck

The Wild Classroom online botany guide

Missouri Wildflower Guide is a great online resource for IDing plants by flower color

Wildflower of the United States is another great source, listing by plant families

Books on Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus: Father of Classification by Margaret Jean Anderson

Carl Linnaeus: Genius of Classification by Margaret J. Anderson

Do you feel it is important to learn plant families? Have you incorporated this aspect of botany in your herbal studies with your children? What are your favorite plant families?

One Response to “[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 54 – Learning Plant Families”

  1. 1

    I started using Botany in a Day in my Field Botany class this spring. Excellent book! The best book I’ve seen for teaching plant families.


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