Have you ever been to a family reunion and wondered how that one cousin could possibly be related to everyone else? Well, it happens in plant families, too.
Learning about plant families can help you generalize about plant care, potential problems, and best practices. It also makes you sound really smart when talking with others about their garden and landscape struggles and successes. If nothing else, learning about the basic edible plant families can help you make the best choices when it comes to crop rotation.
Amaranth Family (Amaranthaceae) - The traditional amaranth family includes quinoa, lamb’s quarters, and, well, amaranth. Recent genetic testing showed us that chenopods, such as spinach, beets, goosefoot, and chard, are also members of this family. If you look at the prolific way seeds are produced, this should come as no surprise. [A while back, I allowed a few beet plants to go to seed. I now have beets coming up all over the place!] This group’s petalless flowers and deep-reaching roots often thrive in less than desirable soil. These crops need to be watered deeply and they do not perform well in acidic soil. Leaf miners are the most common pest.
Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae/Cruciferae) - The cabbage family, also known as a cole crop, includes broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes, mustard, and watercress. They are identified by their four cross-shaped flower petals, with six stamens, and long, narrow fruit/seed pods (siliquose). Most of these plants have a distinct sulfur-like odor. These are usually cool weather crops that prefer neutral or slightly alkaline soil pH. Clubroot can become a problem if crops are not rotated
Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae) - Accessory fruits and drupes give us delicious nuts, tropical fruits, paint varnish, and nightmarish cases of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. While you may be able to grow your own cashews, depending on your Hardiness Zone, you may want to read more about it before you try.
Citrus Family (Rutaceae) - The flowers of this family, which includes citrus trees and rue shrubs, tend to divide into four or five parts and they usually have a strong smell. Grapefruit, kumquat, lemons, limes, mandarins, and those tiny delicious, loose-skinned oranges (calamansi) are all members of this family.
Grain Family (Poaceae) - While processed grains have been getting a bad rap lately, the grass family tree has grown alongside ours since the Agricultural Revolution began, some 10,000 years ago. The grain family includes wheat, corn, rice, oats, rye, sorghum, millet, grasses, bamboo, and barley. They are heavy feeders that need extra nitrogen.
Legume Family (Fabaceae) - This fabulous group has figured out how to capture atmospheric nitrogen, making them an excellent choice for green manures and cover crops, as well as the dinner table. The legume family includes peas, beans, cowpeas, peanuts, soy, fava beans, alfalfa, and lentils. Clover is also a member of the legume family. Adding too much nitrogen to these plants will stimulate vegetative growth, rather than an edible crop. Most of these crops lose some of their nitrogen-fixing ability after they have been transplanted, so direct sow when possible.
Mint Family (Lamiaceae) - The leaves of this mostly perennial family all feature glands that produce aromatic oils. Common members of the mint family include lemon balm, sage, thyme, oregano, lavender, basil, marjoram, rosemary, and savory. Many of these plants feature four-sided stems and they can grow pretty much anywhere. They tolerate drought and poor soil, and most of them tend to spread out over an area.
Nightshade Family (Solanaceae) - While parts of these plants can be toxic, we have long enjoyed the tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tomatillos, bell peppers, chili peppers, and tobacco that are part of this family. Flowers have five petals, leaves are alternate, and the fruit is a berry. These plants are prone to verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt when crop rotation is not used. Nematodes can also be a problem. These plants love moist, nutrient-rich soil.
Onion Family (Liliaceae) - Members of the onion family usually have long, vertical leaves, a leafless flower stalk (scape), and flowers with six petals (or multiples thereof). Leeks, garlic, chives, shallots, and asparagus are all members of the onion family. [Who figured out that asparagus is a member of this family?]
Parsley Family (Apiaceae/Umbelliferae) - The umbrella-shaped flower clusters of this family make them easy to identify. Carrots, coriander, celeriac, celery, and fennel, along with parsley, are all cool season crops. They are slow growers that readily cross-pollinate. These plants do not like heavy, clay soil, which makes them a good choice for raised beds and containers, depending on each plant's rooting depth.
Rose Family (Rosaceae) - This one may surprise you. Along with roses, members of this family include pomes, such as apples and pears, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, and strawberries. This family also includes stone fruits, such as apricots, plums, almonds, peaches, and nectarines. Members of the rose family all have alternate leaves and single or composite flowers, that tend to be pinkish.
Squash Family (Cucurbitaceae) - This family is a thick-skinned group that grows on vines and keeps its seeds in a line down the center of their fruit. The squash, or cucurbit family is made up of melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds, and the inevitable zucchini. These plants love hot weather and many of them have protective bristles. These plants grow quickly and need regular irrigation. Powdery mildew and blights are common problems, along with flea beetles and cucumber beetles.
Sunflower Family (Asteraceae/Compositae) - This very large family of plants has compound flowers and shallow roots. Member of the sunflower family that frequently make their way to the dinner table include artichokes, sunflowers, marigolds, lettuce, cardoons, chamomile, tarragon, chicory, escarole, and salsify. Dandelions are also part of this family. Most of these plants do not perform well in heavy clay, so be sure to regularly top dress the soil with aged compost. These plants have very few pests and they tend to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.
This list is, by no means, exhaustive, but it provides a good starting point.
How many plant families are growing in your garden?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!