The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Plants have families too

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

The holidays bring thoughts of families. Big families. Little families. Plants also have families and they share some of the same quirky attributes of our families.

Some family members are spread throughout the world and some are found only in remote locations. Our native sassafras has relatives on just about every continent. Its family includes such diverse members as cinnamon and avocado.

With some family members it's hard to believe they could be in the same family. Sort of like Jimmy Carter and Billie Carter; while one is developing his Mideast Peace plan the other is developing his beer can label. Our native persimmon is in the same family as the highly prized tropical ebony tree.

In the plant world families are mainly determined by their similarity in flower structure. Now with DNA mapping capabilities some plants get kicked into other families or separated into their own families. Like a typical soap opera the paternity test comes back and John is really Jim's son and not Joe's.

The Rose family is reminiscent of the Kennedy family. It's a large family and just about every one of them is famous. Is it just a coincidence that the Kennedy matriarch is named Rose? The Rose family includes strawberries, blackberries, apples, pears, peaches, almonds, cotoneaster, spirea, and hawthorn to name just a few. It is one of the most economically important families. Hmmmm...just another coincidence?

The Aster family is one of the largest families of flowering plants. It includes many native and ornamental plants found throughout the world. Many members live in such diverse areas as arctic and alpine regions, mountains of tropical areas, and in semi-deserts and grasslands. Aster family includes coneflower, sunflower, goldenrod, marigold, zinnia, burdock, thistle, artichoke, Joe-Pye weed, blazing stars, chicory, endive, lettuce, and dandelion.

The tomato was once assumed guilty of murder because of its notorious family. Many members of the tomato family are poisonous or have poisonous parts such as jimson weed, black nightshade, mandrake, belladonna, and datura. For many years the fruit of the tomato was considered poisonous. An adventuresome Thomas Jefferson did much to dispel the nasty rumor of tomato's deadly powers.

Why do we care about plant families? Some insect and diseases are more common in some families. Fireblight is a common bacterial disease for many members of the rose family. Japanese beetles love to devour members of the rose family. Squash bugs are named for their family of choice and not what we want to do to them.

In vegetable gardens we often talk about rotating planting areas among plant families. In other words it's best to plant a crop from a different family each year or at least every three years so insects and diseases are less likely to build up in one area. However if you have a three foot by three foot garden or you have only one spot sunny enough to grow tomatoes, rotating crops is a bit impractical.

Common vegetable plant families include onion, tomato, bean, mustard, and squash families.

Onion family (really subfamily of lily family) members are pretty easy to identify. They look like they were cut from different sizes of the same cookie cutter. The onion family includes garlic, shallot, leek, and chives.

The tomato family includes pepper, potato, eggplant, tobacco, and even petunia.

Bean family (alias the legumes) includes peas, soybean, cowpea, snap bean, and black-eyed pea.

Mustard family also known as cole crops or crucifers includes rutabaga, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, turnip and radish.

Squash family often listed as cucurbits includes watermelon, luffa, bottle gourds, chayote, pumpkin, squash, gourd, muskmelon, and cucumber.

Families - whether we love 'em or hate 'em, they bind us together. And sometimes they give us ideas for how to grow.

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