Updated: Apr 10, 2021
It is human nature to want to organize facts, to place things into groups or categories. In an effort to better understand plants and their relationships to each other, botanists have created plant families. Sometimes the plants do not superficially resemble each other but based on the structure of the flower, they are deemed to be more closely related to each other than to plants with entirely different flower form. For example. The redbud tree, Cercis canadensis, is in the legume family and has the familiar flower shape and form that the sweet pea has. The redbud is a small tree, wisteria is a troublesome climbing vine, soy beans are a agricultural plant, and the smallest white clover plant in your yard are all legumes. While morphologically they are entirely different they are indeed family members, that is, the flower structure will be found to be the same basic form.
In order to study these families further, it will be necessary to learn a few very basic names for the parts of a flower; nothing excessive or too difficult, just a review of the terms you learned in seventh grade life science class.
Corolla- the colorful part of a typical flower. Sepals-outermost part, usually green, that protect the bud. Calyx- cup like structure at the end of the stem formed by the sepals. Petals-colorful part forming the corolla. In addition the petals may be: Regular- all petals the same size and shape, as in the apple blossom. Irregular- one or more petals distinctly different, as in the mints and violets. Sympetalous- petals joined to form a tube or collar, as in the morning glory. Pistil- female part made up of the ovary, the style, and stigma at the tip.
Stamens- male part made up of the filament and the anther (pollen sac).
Hopefully I haven’t scared you away at this point. Usually in the front of any good field guide there will be diagrams of the various flower parts listed to refresh your memory. Purchase a good field guide. It will make your flower searching more enjoyable. There are guides available that can be installed on your phone.
One of the families most conspicuous at this season of the year is the rose family.
Many of our most familiar spring flowering trees and shrubs are rose family members.
For example, crabapples, cherries, pears, quinces, plums and almonds are represented here. Wild and cultivated strawberries and the bramble fruits, blackberry, loganberry, and raspberry, are in the rose family.
Once more the plants themselves are radically different but if you look closely you will see that the flowers are alike.
I have often been asked, “How does a worm get into an unblemished apple (a rose) when there is no entrance hole?” The answer partly lies in the structure of the apple blossom. The codling moth likes nothing better than to deposit her eggs on the cup-like (receptacle) central portion of the apple blossom. These tiny eggs hatch and the larva eats its way in. After pollination, usually by bees, the petals fall and the base of the flower begins to enlarge, forcing the receptacle to close and the larva is safely contained within as the apple continues to swell. The little freeloader is safe from the elements, surrounded by an ever growing food supply. The nurseryman is intent on getting an application of insecticide on his grove within a few days of petal fall. Once the tiny green apples grow to a certain size, the larvae cannot be reached. Subsequently when the innocent consumer bites into the lovely fruit, he gets and unexpected surprise (free protein)! If you look at the blossom end of the next apple you eat, you will see the persistent sepals. Most of the plants that I have mentioned are alien plants, they are not native to North America and yet we depend greatly on them for much of our food supply.
Unfortunately, some non-natives can become real pests and should not be planted due to their invasive nature. The Bradford Pear is one of these. It is my understanding that when they were first introduced to the nursery trade, no problem was anticipated. However, that has not been the case. Many fallow fields, fence lines, and roadsides have sprung up with them to the detriment of native species. They should never be planted!
I’ll admit that sometimes the Latin family names can be confusing. Perhaps
knowing the meaning of the Latin would be helpful. The mustard family is large
and cosmopolitan. The familiar vegetables: cabbage, kale, Brussel’s sprouts,
broccoli, turnips, radishes, and on and on are mustard family.
The scientific name for this family is Cruciferae, which actually means carrying (Latin-fera - same root word as ferry, as in ferry boat) and cruci (or cross) or carrying a cross. All members of this family have those four-petalled cross-shaped flowers.
Another all-time favorite family of mine is the violet family. To me they are simply small, delicate, most beautiful flowers that remind me of spring. My grandmother’s
back yard was covered in common blue violets.
Both the blue “Yankee” violet and
the blue-gray “Confederate” violet which are color variations of the exact same
species. I must confess that violets can drive me crazy when it comes to their
identification, which relies not only on the shape of the leaves (which can be
variable), the color of the corolla (also variable), and the placement of tiny tufts of hairs (beards) within corolla itself.
(Note the field pansy close-up). The violets all have irregular corollas, that is, the petals are distinctly different with two ascending, two laterals and one broad central lower petal often extending backwards into a spur. The garden pansy is a member of the violet family. The very small (about the size of your little fingernail) field pansy shows its relationship when viewed closely. Look closely enough and you will see the beards, the veining which helps to direct pollinators to the nectar, and grains of pollen that have fallen within the flower.
In upcoming articles I will feature specific families that are currently blooming. An exact identification is not necessary for you to totally enjoy these flowers. Just get outside and see what you can find. Happy hunting!
Delaware recently passed Senate Bill 22 which prohibits the import, export, sale, transport, distribution, or propagation of any plant identified by the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture as an invasive plant, effective July 1, 2022.
The invasive plant list includes, but is not limited to:
Acer palmatum (Japanese maple),
Acer plantanoides (Norway Maple),
Ampelopsis glandulosa (Porcelain berry),
Clematis terniflora, (Japanese Clematis),
Hedera helix (English ivy),
Hemerocallis fulva (Orange daylily),
Lonicera japonica (Japanese honeysuckle),
Lythrum salicaria (Purple loosestrife),
Rosa multiflora (Multiflora rose),
Pyrus calleryana (Callery pear, aka: Bradford pear),
Wisteria sinensis (Chinese wisteria).
We agree with the Delaware Invasive Species Council’s
Voluntary Codes of Conduct for the Gardening Public, which are:
Ask for only non-invasive species when you acquire plants.
Seek information on what species are invasive in your area.
Do not trade plants if you know they are species with invasive characteristics.
Request that nurseries promote, display and sell only non-invasive species.
Help educate your community and other gardeners.
Seek the best information on control of invasive plant species and organize neighborhood work groups to remove invasive plants.
Volunteer at gardens and natural areas to assist ongoing efforts to diminish the threat of invasive species.
Participate in early warning systems by reporting invasive species you observe in your area.
Steve Childers and Paul Layton, "Grist from Abbott's Mill"