Plant families

Some notes on plant families (where a family is a taxon above the genus and species and below the series and order), in minimally technical language, for the aid of the friend who tours Palo Alto’s Gamble Garden with me. Here, notes on some plant families that are especially prominent for one reason or another.

I note that botanical taxonomy (which plants are assigned to which taxa, on what grounds) and its accompanying nomenclature are often deeply unsettled matters: taxonomists disagree as to how taxa are circumscribed and as to what labels to use for these taxa.

There are over 600 plant families in most systems, but many of these families are small or not of great interest to most people dealing with the plant kingdom. Here I’ve picked 5 families of high interest, plus 4 more that merit some attention. The Big 5 come up again and again in our tours of the Gamble Garden.

The scheme for the entries:

(a) a set of alternative names for the family:

(i) a technical name in English, if there is one (e.g., composites);

(ii) a old-school Latinate name, if there is one (e.g., Compositae);

(iii) the new-school Latinate name, with the type genus it’s based on (e.g., Asteraceae [type genus Aster]); and

(iv) one or more conventional desgnations of the form X family, where X is a plant name in ordinary English (e.g., daisy / sunflower / aster family)

(b) one or more characteristic features of the plants in the family, which might be used for identification:

features: characteristic inflorescence (composite flowers)

(c) notes on exemplary plants in the family, emphasizing any variety in plant type and number of exemplars. (The designation herb here is used as a botanical term, not a culinary one.) So:

exemplars: a variety of species (but mostly herbs): daisy, aster, sunflower, radicchio, wild chicory; sagebrush (a shrub); a few tropical trees. This is a huge family.

That’s entry #1, with explanatory notes.

Entry #2:

(a) names:

(i) labiates

(ii) Labiatae

(iii) Lamiaceae [type genus: Lamium]

(iv) mint family

(b) features: characteristic inflorescence (lipped flowers), square stem, aromatic parts

(c) exemplars: a variety of species (but mostly herbs): basil, mint; rosemary (a shrub); teak (a tree)

Entry #3:

(a) names:

(i) umbellifers

(ii) Umbelliferae

(iii) Apiaceae [type genus Apium]

(iv) parsley / carrot / celery family

(b) features: characteristic inflorescence (umbels), hollow stem, taproot, aromatic parts

(c) exemplars: most are herbs: parsley, carrot, celery, coriander, cumin, dill, hemlock, cow parsley

Entry #4:

(a) names:

(i) legumes

(ii) Leguminosae

(iii) Fabaceae [type genus Faba]

(iv) pea / bean family

(b) features: characteristic fruit (pods); nitrogen-fixing

(c) exemplars: great variety of species: clover, pea, bean (herbs); wisteria (a woody vine); locust, redbud, acacia (trees)

Entry #5:

(a) names:

(ii)/(iii): Rosaceae [type genus Rosa]

(iv) rose family

(b) features: characteristic inflorescence (5 petals, radially symmetric)

(c) exemplars: great variety of species: strawberry (herb); rose, blackberry, raspberry, photinia (shrubs); cherry, apricot, almond (trees)

So much for the Big 5. On to entry #6, which is here because of the economic and cultural significance of the plants:

(a) names:

(i) crucifers

(ii) Cruciferae

(iii) Brassicaceae [type genus Brassica]

(iv) mustard / cabbage family

(b) feature: characteristic inflorescence (4 petals in a cross)

(c) exemplars: most are herbs: mustard, cabbage, broccoli, turnip, stock, horseradish, radish, arugula, kale

Entry #7: Common garden plants:

(a) names:

(ii)/(iii) Liliaceae [type genus Lilium]

(iv) lily family

(b) features: characteristic inflorescence, including parts arranged in threes; bulb

(c) exemplars: lily, tulip, camass-lily (herbs)

Entry #8: Here because the family is a gigantic one, rivaling the composites:

(a) names:

(i) orchids

(ii)/(iii) Orchidaceae [type genus Orchis]

(iv) orchid family

Entry #9: A family that’s divided into three families on some accounts:

(a) names:

(ii)/(iii) Amaryllidaceae [type genus Amaryllis]

(iv) amaryllis family

(b) feature: bulb (and complex features of inflorescence)

(c) exemplars, all herbs: amaryllis (A. belladonna), daffodil, snowdop; onion, chive; agapanthus

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