There are thousands of plant species that are a part of hundreds of plant Family’s. The important thing, for folks who want to begin learning about useful plants in the wild, to understand is that plant Family’s have very specific patterns. By learning these patterns, you can begin to identify plants as being a part of a Family, even if you have never seen the plant before and don’t know what it’s name is.
Once you can confidently identify plants as being a part of a Family, you begin to understand the usefulness (and dangers) of the plant, even if you don’t know exactly what it is.
Following are a few examples:
Above we have two members of the Mallow Family. The key to identifying Mallow is that all Mallow have five petals with many stamen fused to the pistol. If you have that characteristic, pick a leaf and crush it between your fingers. Does it get very slippery and sometimes even slimy? If it does, you have Mallow. Now you know you have an edible and medicinal plant (great for sore throats and burns), even if you don’t know the exact species.
Take a close look at the examples above. All of these plants are members of the Aster Family. Asters appear to be a single flower, but on close inspection, each flower is made of many individual complete flowers. Some, like the Aster in the upper right, have outer Ray Flowers as well as inner Disk flowers. The Dandelion only has Ray Flowers. If you have a pattern that you can see a bunch of flowers within a single looking flower, than you have an Aster.
Another great example are plants of the Mustard Family below. Mustards all carry the following pattern. 4 petals that form a cross, 4 sepals, 6 stamen (4 of which are tall and 2 short). If you have that pattern, you have a mustard. The Mustard Family is huge and every one is edible. Some don’t taste great, but edible none the less.
Though some Families of plants are completely safe, that’s not always the case. Families like the Carrot or Parsley Family have edible species like Queen Anne’s Lace and extremely noxious species like Giant Hogweed as well as deadly poisonous species like Poison Hemlock. But, by learning the specific characteristics of plant Families, you can begin to determine that a plant will have certain qualities that are either useful, or should be avoided, no matter where you are or whether you have seen the plant before.
As always, if you aren’t 100% sure you have what you believe you have, don’t use the plant. This blog just skims the surface, but hopefully it gives some direction on how to study and learn plants. Learn to recognize the characteristics that are constant and unique to the Family. Then learn about any constants within the Family, such as, if it’s a Mallow, Mint (square stem, opposite leaves, typically minty odor) or Mustard you have an edible and medicinal plant, even if you have never seen it before.