Climbing bean flowers have only one axis of symmetry
A practical thing botany teaches is too look at similarities and differences or patterns in plants. When growing vegetables you start to see resemblances between the plants and it can be useful to develop some general knowledge about how plant families are classified. I have found this knowledge particularly useful for:
- Crop rotation — so you can avoid planting crops from the same family in the same spot each season, or too close together
- Pest management — the same families have similar pests and diseases and control methods
- Seed saving — plants in the same family may cross pollinate or have similar seed collection and storage needs, so you don’t need to memorise the details for every individual plant
Plants are classified botanically into groups according to similarities in their flowers, seeds and their genes. Two plants that have almost identical looking leaves may not be related at all botanically. So while the growing form, such as leaves or height, can give some clue to whether plants are related, the best place to start to see the family patterns it is to look closely at the flowers and seed formation.
Important is the overall shape of flowers; symmetry — are they symmetrical if cut from all angles or only along one axis? What is the flower structure — are there single or multiple flowers together; how do they branch? Which flowers open first — those at the top or the bottom?
All of these are clues to which plants belong to the same family.
Sunflower, daisies are symmetrical on all axes
Botanically, plant names are standardised worldwide into Latin. The first name is the genus and the second the species. The Latin or botanical name is always written in italics, e.g.
|Broad bean, fava, bakulla||fabaceae||Vicia||faba|
|Eggplant, aubergine, brinjal||solonacea||Solanum||melongena|
Herb family- basil, lavender, sage.
The lamiaceae or herb family is a good place to start your observations. Flowers are usually in a spike (a single stem with multiple flowers along it), and each tiny flower is symmetrical only along one axis, when cut vertically. Another interesting characteristic of this family is that the stems are always square in shape — take a closer look and roll the stems in your fingers. Try lavender and mint to start with.
European herbs with medicinal properties often have the genus name of officianalis eg. Rosemary (Rosmarinfolius officinalis), Common Mint (Mentha officinalis).
If you come across an unknown plant with a flower spike that’s scented and has square stems, the chances are it has some medicinal or companion plant properties and will be easier to identify if you can narrow it down to the Lamiaceae family.
Pumpkin, male flower
Some other common vegetable families to observe and explore are:
- Solonancea — tomato, capsicum, chilli, eggplant.
- Brassicaceae — cabbage, kale, kohl rabi, brussel sprouts, broccoli (which are all variants of the same species so cross breed very easily and have very similar looking seeds), and radishes, asian greens and mustards which are a different species. All are attacked by cabbage moth.
- Cucurbitaceae — this family has male and female flowers on the same plant and includes pumpkins, squash, zucchini, melons. All cucurbits are pollinated by bees visiting the male flowers and then dabbing the pollen onto the female ones (can be done by hand also but time consuming, so not very permaculture — it’s better to attract bees!)
- Umbelliferae — so called from the shape of its flower and seed heads, known as umbels. They look a bit like upside-down umbrellas, with multiple stems and flat at the top. Carrot, parsley, dill, fennel, coriander, celery, parsnip are in this family.
While it’s best not to get too bogged down in botanical names, it can be useful to have a general idea of how they are used. If you are trying to source seed from another country they can be particularly useful as the common name you know may be unknown in other countries. Many migrants in Australia face this problem! I met some women from Sudan who used to eat the leaves of a certain type of bush bean, but only knowing the local name makes it next to impossible to find in Australia.
Sudanese migrants looking for familiar varieties
Once you tune your eye to see the small details, the patterns of flowers will become more obvious — another layer to the greatness of nature’s design!