When we think of legumes, we think of peas and beans, but those common foods are just the beginning. The pea family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) is the third largest family of plants, with somewhere between 13,000 and 19,000 species (botanists disagree) that range from large trees to sprawling vines to shrubs and small forbs. They may look quite different from one another, but a careful examination will reveal a number of similarities, making the members of this fascinating family fairly easy to identify.
While plants don’t have lungs, they do need to exchange gases with the atmosphere in order to live, just as we do. To accomplish this, they have various sorts of openings.
What do carrots, cilantro, celery, and poison hemlock have in common? Think like a botanist. How do the leaves look? What shape is the root? What about the flowers? Yes, they’re all members of the Apiaceae (aka Umbelliferae) family of plants. So are caraway, anise, parsley, parsnips, and a whole host of other familiar species.
Members of this family are relatively easy to distinguish. The most obvious feature is in the way their flowers are arranged—like an umbrella, with a stalk and a cluster of flowers on stems all springing from a central point.
Family Amaranthaceae has a lot of members—over 2,000 species. You will likely recognize many of them. Some are ornamental—think of the garden annuals Gomphrena, Ptilotus, and Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus). The Celosias are also amaranths—you might know some of them as the old-fashioned flower Cock’s Comb.
I sat munching my seedless grapes, enjoying the sweet juices. I bit one in half, and focused on the tiny, immature lumps that would have been seeds in another variety. I’ve always taken seedless grapes for granted, but now I wondered—why didn’t the seeds develop in this cultivar? It clearly goes against a plant’s nature to grow fruit without seeds.
And what about watermelon? Is the same process involved? And those name brand tangerines we just polished off didn’t have seeds either. These days, even bananas are seedless. I miss the little black dots that used to decorate my banana bread. Then there are seedless tomatoes and cucumbers, two more fruits, at least from a botanist’s perspective. I had never stopped to consider how many seedless fruit crops are now available.
Did you know that plants come in families?
You may remember learning taxonomy in your high school biology class. Way back when, I taught my classes of 15-year-olds the seven levels of classification: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. (Since that time, scientists have been busy, and we now have domains, which precede kingdoms.) All these can have super- and sub- added to their names, as well. If you’re talking about plants, “phylum” is replaced by “division” and “order” is sometimes replaced by “series,” just to keep things as confusing as possible. Continue reading “All in the Family”