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Identifying Plants

Whether you're walking to a treestand, gliding near the banks in a canoe or just strolling down the street, you'll see nature's beauty unfold — bloom, if you will — in spring and throughout the warm-weather months. Flowers are the ornaments of creation, with their variety of colors, sizes, shapes and scents. We exchange them as a token of affection — whether it's a single daisy picked on a whim or a big, bushy bouquet. You'd be hard pressed to find a flower that is not beautiful in its own right.

You would think something so beautiful as flowers that grow freely around us would be hard to categorize. Well, they are. The process of categorizing plants can become quite difficult. If fact, it is a science — a science called plant taxonomy.

I can show you a simple method of placing plants into groups, bypassing all the scientific stuff, by explaining the concept of plant families. You might be wondering why you would even want to categorize plants. Well, it's for no other reason than you could discover something interesting.

You see, plant families are a lot like human families — the members don't always look alike, but usually most have a common trait. Take the Rose Family, for example. Roses, blackberries, almonds, apples and cherries are all members of the Rose Family. As different as all these plants seem, they have a common characteristic — a flower with five petals.

Not all plant families have such an obvious similarity. Sometimes, the common trait is downright hard to spot. But take a look at the following families and notice the variety of members that represent each. Read about the uses of different plants and the folklore behind others. You'll find that flowers are more than just pretty faces, they're beautiful plants with a story.

Notable Family Members

  • weeping willow

  • pussy willow

  • dwarf willow (in Canada only)

  • cottonwood

Common Trait

  • All the members of the willow family have hairy seeds.

Fun Facts

  • The most popular modern-day use for willow branches is making baskets.

  • Pussy willow stems are often used in floral arrangements. The stems are gathered in late winter and then brought inside where they bloom into a decorative yellow.

  • In ancient times, the soft inner bark of willow trees was used as a cure for headaches. Its chemical derivative — a source of salicylic acid for aspirin — still is.

  • It is said that willow wood was the traditional material from which polo balls and cricket bats were made.

Notable Family Members

  • dogwood trees

    Common Trait

    • Most people think that the color part of a dogwood bloom is the flower. In fact, these are leaf-like structures called bracts. In the center of these bracts are several small flowers.

    Fun Facts

    • The legend of the dogwood is that at the time of Christ's Crucifixion, the dogwood was so large (about the size of a large oak) and so strong that the tree was used as timber for the cross. After Christ's death, it was said that the tree would never again grow strong enough to be used as a cross. Since that time, the dogwood has become characteristically slender and bent. The next time you come across a dogwood, take a look at an individual blossom. You see two long petals and two short ones — in the form of a cross. And in the center of the petals are brown nail prints stained with red; in the center a crown of thorns.

    • Dogwoods should be called "dagwoods," because in medieval times they were used for making wooden daggers.

    Notable Family Members
    • catnip

    • sage

    • thyme

    • purple dead nettle

    • bee-balm

    • peppermint

    • spearmint

    • rosemary

    • basil

    • lavender

    • oregano

    Common Trait

    • Members of the Mint Family are aromatic and have square stems. You can tell a plant is a mint by smelling it and by rolling the stems between your thumb and your index finger. Even though the stem is small, you can feel the four sides of the square shape.

    Fun Facts

    • Cats are fond of catnip and will nibble and roll around in the plant — sometimes killing the plant in the process.

    • The name lavender comes from the Latin word larvare, which means "to wash." This meaning stemmed from the Roman custom of using lavender stems and flowers to scent their bath water — a custom that is still practiced today. A lavender bath is thought to sooth sore muscles.

    Notable Family Members

    • sunflower

    • ragweed

    • marigold

    • black-eyed Susan

    • goldenrod

    • artichoke

    • thistle

    • chickory

    • lettuce

    Common Trait

    • The members of the Sunflower Family produce a fruit called an achene. An example would be the sunflower "seeds" you eat for a snack. The "seeds" are actually fruits that protect much smaller seeds inside.

    Fun Facts

    • The Sunflower Family is probably the largest family of flowering plants.

    • American pioneers found a lot of uses for sunflowers: New growth was eaten like asparagus. They ate the "seeds" or fruits for a snack, like we do today. The fruit was also used in baking and as winter bird feed. The leaves and stalks were used as fodder, and the stalks' fibers were used to make cloth. They used the oil from the fruit in cooking and for making soap. Yellow dye was made from the blossoms. Sunflowers were planted close to the house because of the superstition that they were protection against malaria.

    • During the American Revolution, goldenrod blossoms were dried to make a tea, which was very popular at the time. It not a good idea today, because a poisonous fungus often grows on the plants.

    • Chickory coffee is said to be good for liver and gall bladder ailments. The Egyptians and Greeks drank chickory coffee and called it the liver's friend.

    • The name for the marigold is an abbreviated combination of "Mary's gold," honoring the Virgin Mary. Because of this association, marigolds were considered powerful tokens of good luck and were thought to be protection against evil.

    Notable Family Members

    • lily

    • day lily

    • hyacinth

    • lily of the valley

    • trilliums

    • amaryllis

    • spider lily

    • onion

    • chive

    • garlic

    • jonquil

    • daffodil

    Common Trait

    • The flowers of the Lily Family have three petals.

    Fun Facts

  • The wild onion is sometimes a problem to the dairy industry, because the cows that graze on it produce garlic-flavored milk.

  • The bulb of the wild onion was used on the Lewis and Clark expedition to flavor the explorers' bland camp food.

  • Native American women commonly used the trillium as a love potion. They would boil the root and drop it in the food of the man they desired. There is an old Native American story of a beautiful young girl who wanted the chief's son for her husband, so she boiled a trillium root and took it to put in his food. On the way she tripped, and the root fell into the food of an ugly old man who promptly ate it and followed the girl around for months, begging her to marry him.

  • The lily is considered the sacred flower of motherhood. According to Anglo-Saxon folklore, if you offered an expectant mother both a rose and a lily, and she chose the rose, the baby would be a girl. If she chose a lily, she would give birth to a boy.

  • Wild daffodils caused the first wild species protective legislation in England. The flowers were so popular during the reign of the Stuarts that peasants would pick them by the thousand to sell at court. The depletion sparked a public protest, and laws were passed to protect the flowers.



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