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What “Family” Means

By Ray Allen, Founder of

In a botanical sense, the word “family” has very definite meaning, and it’s not just a loosely put together bunch of flowers that may look alike. In fact, looks is not always the common denominator. “Family” is an official botanical classification like “Genus” or “Species,” and flower families were named and organized by Linnaeas, the early Swedish botanist who created our whole system of plant nomenclature.

So when you read that potentillas, for example, are members of the Rose Family, you may be surprised. They certainly don’t look like roses! But that’s not the point. The botanical families do have common features, but they’re much more esoteric that the way the famous flowers look. So unless you’re studying botany, don’t worry too much about the detail. Just accept the family name provided.

The following is a list of the more prominent Wildflower Families represented in North America. Each family is described with a capsulated description to aid in its identification.

ACANTHUS FAMILY (Acanthaceae) These wildflowers are similar to the Snapdragon Family but are distinguished by seeds which are attached to a two-cavity capsule. Many of the species of this family can be found in rich, moist woods. Our midwestern native, Wild Petunia, is a famous member of the Acanthus family.

AMARANTH FAMILY (Amaranthaceae) A weedy family with inconspicuous flowers made up of 71 genera and about 800 species, mostly herbs. Amarantos is a Greek word meaning “unfading”, referring to the fact that if moistened with water, many of the species in this family will revive. Most members of this family have a sort of plumed flower cluster. Garden cockscomb is a showy member, and one of the world’s most common weeds, Pigweed, is an Amaranth.

ARROWHEAD FAMILY (Alismataceae) Wildflower plants in this family can often be found in swamps and mud. The leaves are often shaped like arrow heads and thus the family name. The flowers are whorled and usually white. The family has eleven genera with 95 species.

ARUM FAMILY (Araceae) This family is sometimes referred to as the Calla Family. In many of the species in this family there is a large floral leaf called a spathe. This leaf is usually,in addition to being quite large, also smoothe and shiny. The family has 105 genera with 2,950, species, found chiefly in the tropics. A great example of this family that’s well-known in North America is our Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

BARBERRY FAMILY (Berberidaceae) This is a family of dissimilar members combined for technical reasons. Podophyllum, one sub-set-has a showy white flower between two palmate leaves. Jeffersonia has a 2-bladed leaf while Caulophyllum has a terminal cluster with deeply cut edged leaves.

BEDSTRAW FAMILY (Rubiaceae) Sometimes referred to as the Madder Family. Small, low flowers whose leaves are also small and thin appearing in whorls or pairs.

BIGNONIA FAMILY (Bignoniaceae) Don’t confuse this family name with “begonia.” There is no connection. The wildflower species in this family are woody plants with showy tubular flowers.

BIRTHWORT FAMILY (Aristolochiaceae) These are mostly tropical wildflowers with large, heart-shaped leaves and red to brownish flowers.

BLADDERWORT FAMILY (Lentibulariaceae) The plants in this family are often low to the ground and found in wetter places. They have 2-lipped flowers with hollow spurs.

BLUEBELL FAMILY (Campanulaceae) This a widely distributed family known for its bell-shaped flowers.

BUCKWHEAT FAMILY (Polygonaceae) These wildflower plants are characterized by swollen joints where the leaves are attached. In addition the stem is often zig-zagged and the flowers inconspicuous. The very common Smartweeds are all members, easily identified by their swollen-jointed stems.

BUR REED FAMILY (Sparganiaceae) Plants in this family are usually found in marshy areas. They have small flowers located at intervals along the stem.

BUTTERCUP FAMILY (Ranunculaceae) A large and diversified family of 58 genera and 1,750 species distinguished by numerous stamens and pistils that form a small circle in the center of the flower. Ranunculus is Latin for “small frog”, perhaps referring to the watery habitat of many of the species in this family. Certain columbines and delphiniums plus common buttercup are members of this family.

CACTUS FAMILY (Cactaceae) Spiny,fleshy plants with cuplike blossoms found in dry habitats.

CAPER FAMILY (Capparidaceae) This family is made up primarily of shrub-like or herb plants. The stamens are usually longer than the petals

CARPETWEED FAMILY (Aizoaceae) Succulent plants with no corolla.

CATTAIL FAMILY (Typhaceae) Tall plants found in dense stands in marshy areas. The leaves are long and blade-like with brown, sausage-like flower heads.

COMPOSITE FAMILY (Compositae) This is the family of daisy-type flowers (“composites”), and as you might guess, it’s the largest of all flowering plant families. Many botanists believe that it is also the family that has most recently appeared on our planet. The flowers produce many seeds and this large number aids in its success and wide distribution. Members of course include the obvious such as daisies and coneflowers, but also many not-so-obvious species such as Blazing Star, the well-known wildflower with tall purple tiny-flowered spikes, and also Joe Pye Weed, the famous wetland plant with milkweed-like clustered flowerheads. If you look closely at these non-daisy-like flowers, you’ll notice many, many tiny daisies clustered together, which is why these species are in the Composite Family.

DAFFODIL FAMILY (Amaryllidaceae) Plants with bulbs and grass-like leaves and flowers that are lilylike. Also referred to as the Amaryllis family. Obviously, this is the family of many of our most popular bulb flowers.

DOGBANE FAMILY (Apocynaceae) This family is related to the Milkweed Family, and like that group, its plants produce a milky juice from pods.

EVENING PRIMROSE FAMILY (Onagraceae) Characterized by showy flowers that open later in the day. Most of its anantomy occurs in “fours”—four petals, four sepals, etc. This is the family of the Sundrops and other yellow-flowered evening primroses. The famous pink Showy Evening Primrose, so loved in Texas, is one of the few non-yellow members.

FLAX FAMILY (Linaceae) Fragile plants with small narrow leaves and delicate blue or yellow flowers on the tip of its branches. This is the family from which we produce linen, the fabric, and also linseed oils and linaments. “Linum” is the genus name of the many flax species, native in North America and other continents.

FORGET ME NOT FAMILY (Boraginaceae) Characteristic flower arrangement featuring a one-sided, rolled-up coil. The leaves are alternate and undivided. The family name tells you that borage, the edible herb, is a member.

GENTIAN FAMILY (Gentianaceae) This family is characterized by plants that have 4 to 12 joined petals and an equal number of joined stamens. The leaves are most often opposite and Undivided, and of course, many members of the family are gentian blue.

GERANIUM FAMILY (Geraniaceae) Pink and lavender flowers are the hallmark of this family. Petals, stamens, and sepals are in groups of 5. This is the family of the wild geraniums, not the large-flowered houseplants accurately called pelargoniums.

HEATH FAMILY (Ericaceae) Woody, shrubby plants with flowers having a single pistil and four or five united petals and sepals. All rhododendron species are in this family.

IRIS FAMILY (Iridaceae) Slender ,grasslike leaves with showy, beautiful flowers with petals, stamens, and sepals in “threes”. The obvious members of this family are well-known, but others such as beautiful little Blue-eyed Grass are also members.

LILY FAMILY (Lilliaceae) Bulbed perennial plants with parallel leaves. The flowers are described as bell-like or triangular. Of course, all the wild lilies are here, but sometimes we don’t recognize them. Wildflowers such as the tall, but tiny-flowered Solomon’s Seals, the 3” tall Canada Mayflower, and the wild Field Garlics (Allium species) and many others are somewhat surprising members of the Lily family.

LOOSESTRIFE FAMILY (Lythraceae) Terminally clustered flowers usually purple with simple, untoothed leaves. One of North America’s most famous and hated pest species is here, Lythrum salicaria, the very invasive Purple Loosestrife.

MALLOW FAMILY (Malvaceae) Characterized by showy flowers with 5 wide petals and stamens. The stamens actually form a tower. Contains many species. The many Malva species (mallows) with their hibiscus-like blooms are members, but also others such as Lavatera trimestris.

MILKWEED FAMILY (Asclepiadaceae) These plants produce a thick white juice from the stems. Most have whorled leaves. Flowers have swept back petals and are characterized by umbel-like clusters. The fruit is a long pod with seeds attached to its floss.

MINT FAMILY (Labiatae) Herbs and herb-like family of flowers that carry an aroma of mint. Most species in this family have distinctively square stems and leaves that are opposite. Bee Balm is a famous member, along with Peppermint, Motherwort, and many weedy wild mints.

MORNING GLORY FAMILY (Convolvulaceae) Vine flowers with 5 united petals. Includes the popular garden varieties, but also the dreaded wild species such as Field Bindweed, one of our most troublesome weeds.

MUSTARD FAMILY (Cruciferae) The flowers in this family have four petals that form a cross which is the explanation for its name. All the very common wild yellow mustard species are members, but also, lavender-flowered Dame’s Rocket is part of the family. Although many people call Dame’s Rocket “wild phlox” since it looks something like garden phlox, but look closely, and you see it has the mark of the mustard family—four-petaled flowers. Phlox species have five.

NIGHTSHADE FAMILY (Solanaceae) This family is also known as the Tomato Family. Some species in this family are poisonous. The fruit has a pod or a berry. Flowers can vary from large and single to beak-like. Everthing from the garden tomato to the wildflower called Deadly Nightshade are all in the family. The blooms are all somewhat similar.

ORCHID FAMILY (Orchidaceae) The flowers of this family can appear as single blossoms, clusters or spikes. The leaves are entire and scale-like. This family includes all the famous tropical orchids, but also the ground-growing species in North America, such as the lady slippers.

PARSLEY FAMILY (Umbelliferae) Umbrella-like flower clusters with finely cut leaves. This family is also known as the Carrot Family. One of the most famous members is our common roadside weed, Bishop's Flower Seeds, which is called Wild Carrot in England. Other famous members are some of the most poisonous plants in the world, our common Water Hemlock and the sinister Poison Hemlock, the plant used to make the tea that killed Socrates. Both of these, and some other members of this family, are usually fatal when eaten by cattle, and certainly fatal if ingested by humans. They are so poisonous, an adult can die in about 20 minutes after ingesting the roots, seeds, leaves, or stems.

PEA FAMILY (Leguminosae) Most of the species in this family have irregular flowers often appearing in clustered heads. These flowers are often called legume flowers, after this family’s name in Latin. Leaves are usually compound and alternate. You’d expect members like garden sweetpeas, but all lupine species are here, too.

PHLOX FAMILY (Polemoniaceae) Five flat-petaled flowers with simple undivided flowers. Not only the tall garden phlox species are included here, but also many wildflowers such as Wild Blue Phlox, a short woodland species from eastern North American forests.

PICKERELWEED FAMILY (Pontederiaceae) Shallow water plants with shiny dark leaves and spiked, clustered flowers.

PINK FAMILY (Caryophyllaceae) Whorled leaves and flowers with notched flowers. All the pinks including Sweet William are included.

PITCHER PLANT FAMILY (Sarraceniaceae) Plants that grow in bogs as a rule. They have tubular leaves with single flowers on separate stocks. The famous Venus flytrap is in this family.

PLANTAIN FAMILY (Plantaginaceae) Basal rosettes of leaves with small flower clusters on a single stock.

POPPY FAMILY (Papaveraceae) The plants in this family have a milky and arid secretion. The beautiful flowers have multiples of four petals and two sepals. The leaves are either lobed or cut. This is the family of some of the world’s most famous flowers, including the most popular wildflower of them all, the Red Poppy, Papaver rhoeas. The sinister Opium Poppy is named Papaver somniferum, but not all family members are named Papaver. Our famous western wildflower, the beautiful California Poppy is in the family, but is named Eschscholzia californica.

PRIMROSE FAMILY (Primulaceae) Flat-flowered plants for the most part, although there are notable exceptions such as some of the Shooting Stars. Leaves are simple and undivided.

SAXIFRAGE FAMILY (Saxifragaceae) This family has some similarities with the Rose Family, but differs in seed characteristics. Leaves are mostly basal and most blooms are clustered flowers.

ST. JOHNSWORT FAMILY (Guttiferae) Paired, un-toothed leaves with dark spots and clusters of flowers, usually yellow.

SPIDERWORT FAMILY (Commelinaceae) The species of this family have linear, leafy stems with terminal roundish-petaled flowers that open one at a time and are bluish or purple.

TEASEL FAMILY (Dipsacaceae) Plants with small flowers crowded into a dense bristly head. Most teasel family members are natives of Europe and Asia; however some species are naturalized in North American. Opposite leaves.

TOUCH-ME-NOT FAMILY (Balsaminaceae) A plant family that is marked by thin leavesand bright, irregular-shaped flowers. Most of its species are in the tropics. A North American example is Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, our common woodland wildflower with bright orange nodding wildflowers on tall succulent-stemmed plants.

VALERIAN FAMILY (Valerianaceae) Opposite leaves and tiny flowers that appear in clusters.

VERVAIN FAMILY (Verbenaceae) The plants in this family have toothed leaves that are paired. The flowers are small and spiked or flat in clusters.

VIOLET FAMILY (Violaceae) The species in this family appear low to the ground. The flowers have five petals and a distinctive pistil.

WATERLEAF FAMILY (Hydrophyllaceae) The leaves of the plants in this family are marked as if by a water stain. Flower petals, sepals and stamens are arranged in groups of five.

WATER LILY FAMILY (Nymphaeaceae) Aquatic plants with long stocks and showy flowers.

WINTERGREEN FAMILY (Pyrolaceae) The species of this family grow in woodland environments. Evergreen leaves with flowers that hang down.

WOOD SORREL FAMILY (Oxalidaceae) Clover-like leaves with 5-parted flowers. The family name in Latin tells you the many species of Oxalis are in this family.