How herbs are related
The number of distinct botanical species recorded in the world is impressive. 500 species of conifers, 12,000 species of ferns, 14,000 species of mosses, and a staggering 300,000 different species of flowering plants. Most of our herbs are flowering plants, but how can we make sense of such an overwhelming diversity? Within that giant group of plants, botanists have devised ways to organise things a little by breaking plants into smaller groups called botanical families.
For one thing, each and every flowering plant species takes one of two forms when it's emerging from the seed. Either a species has one leaf when it first sprouts, or it has two. Plants with only one seed leaf are called monocots, and plants with two seed leaves are called dicots. Monocots are less common, weighing in at a mere 50,000 species worldwide 😉
But there are many other characteristics that help botanists put a little order into the chaos. Leaf shape, seed formations, and flower types are just a few. Out of all the amazing plant families that botanists have identified, around eight of them are extra important for herbalists. These families hold many of our most valuable herbs – and learning and studying about these families can be a fascinating way to learn more about our herbs. Plant families are frameworks that provides clues for us to visually identify our herbs with confidence, and helps us remember their uses by allowing us to compare and contrast with their closest family members.
Here's a few of the botanical families out there ...
Mustard (Brassicaceae) Family
The mustard family plants have distinctive, skinny seed pods, flowers with four petals, and most of the plants share a similar, slightly funky smell. Shepherd’s purse, watercress, and mustard are members. The official name for this family is Brassicaceae. If you grow your own veggies, you're probably already familiar with another branch of the brassicas – cabbage and broccoli.
Mint (Lamiaceae) Family
The Lamiaceae family contains plants that often have square stalks, leaves that grow opposite one another, and are rich in volatile oils. Because of the levels of volatile oils, many of these herbs are exquisitely fragrant at their peak harvesting time – motherwort, catnip, bee balm, lemon balm and peppermint are a few examples, as is chia.
Parsley (Apiaceae) Family
Parsley, wild carrot, and angelica are members of the Apiaceae family. Typically, these plants have an umbrella shaped flower cluster called an umbel, and have hollow stalks. They are often highly aromatic, and the roots may be one of the useful parts of the plant.
Pea (Fabaceae) Family
With 8 different tribes, the pea family has lots of variations and can be a bit confusing. Typically, these plants develop seeds in pods, and have leaves arranged in pairs along a stem. However, clover is a member of this family too, and has a distinctive three leaf pattern. Other plants that are from various branches of the pea family include mimosa, senna, liquorice, and kudzu.
Lily (Liliaceae) Family
Liliaceae plants often have flowers with parts in threes, and have roots that develop into bulbs or corms. Solomon’s seal, trillium, onions, and chives are in this family. And, surprise – aloes are a subfamily of Liliaceae, even though they look nothing like the other lily family plants at first glance.
Mallow (Malvaceae) Family
One of the most distinctive features of the Malvaceae plants is the slimy, mucilage texture produced when the leaves are crushed. Marshmallow, hibiscus, and okra all belong in this family, as well as linden and violets.
Sunflower (Asteraceae) Family
Asteraceae is another big family that herbalists use often. Distinctive flowers that are disc shaped or have sunflower or daisy-like petals are characteristic of this family. Chamomile, ox-eye daisy, yarrow, dandelion, and echinacea are part of this family. And ... so is our not-so-friendly ragwort 😉