The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Plants have families too

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

The holidays elicit thoughts of families. Big families. Little families. Plants also have families and they may be just as quirky as ours.

Family members may live throughout the world or may be found only in remote locations. Our native sassafras tree 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 was developing his Mideast Peace plan the other was developing his beer can label. Our native persimmon is in the same family as the highly prized tropical ebony tree. Vegetable garden resident okra is in the same family as the handsome hibiscus.

In the plant world families are determined mainly 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 was 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 and gastronomically important families.

The Aster family is one of the largest families of flowering plants and includes some of our most treasured ornamentals and most detested weeds. Many of its members and the botanists that study them may require psychological counselling. They've endured major name changes over the last few years. It's hard to keep up. Aster family members live in such diverse areas as arctic and alpine regions, tropical mountains 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 tasty tomato was once presumed deadly because of its notorious family. Many tomato family members 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 poisonous powers.

Why do we care about plant families? Some insect and diseases are more common in certain 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 specific area with 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, rotating crops is a bit impractical for small gardens.

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

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

Bean family (alias the legumes) includes peas, soybean, cowpea, snap bean, black-eyed pea and well-known trees of redbud and honey locust.

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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