Plant Families

The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves; this notion consists in having a true idea of the objects; objects are distinguished and known by classifying them methodically and giving them appropriate names. Therefore, classification and name-giving will be the foundation of our science.
— Carolus Linnaeus

It would take seven lifetimes to learn the Latin names of every plant, how to identify them and to which families they belong. Even more, to learn all the common names and their medicinal actions plus energetics is an impossible task.

So let’s start simply:

Plant Families:

The best way to start is by introducing one family at a time.

Plant Names:

My name is Krista Coyan. My family name is Coyan. All of my immediate family members share the same last name: Coyan. Dan, Rebekah and Roxie Coyan. You can identify us easily by name. We live in the Czech Republic, but some of us live in California. So if you meet Tom and Dawn Coyan or John and Carolyn Coyan, you can maybe assume they belong to us, to our family.

Plants have families too. There are hundreds of plant families and within them millions of plant species. It’s an impossible task. Luckily, we have the internet and the hundreds of years of effort of botanists globally.

Plant names are reduced simply to into three categories: Family, Genus and Species.

At the simplest level of scientific classification, each plant has a name made up of two parts, a generic (or genus) name and a specific name or species. Together, these two names are referred to as a binomial.

generic name is a ‘collective name’ for a group of plants. It indicates a grouping of organisms that all share a suite of similar characters. Ideally these should all have evolved from one common ancestor. The species name, allows us to distinguish between different organisms within a genus.

Australia’s Virtual Herbarium
  • Binomial names are always written with the generic name first, starting with a capital letter, e.g.: Ocimum
  • The specific name always follows the generic name, starting with a lower-case letter, e.g.: basilicum
  • The full species name or binomial being Ocimum basilicum.
  • The common name is Basil.

There are hierarchical levels of classification (ranks) above and below the genus and species, the most commonly referred to is the grouping of several genera (plural of genus) into a family. As with plants within the same genus, plants in the same family have many characteristics in common. 

Australia’s Virtual Herbarium
  • Ocimum basilicum is in the family Lamiaceae, along with Mentha, Lavandula, Thymus and many other genera.
  • Family names start with a capital letter and generally end in “…ceae”.

The best way to begin is by getting to know one family at a time. During this course, Herbalism 101, you will become acquainted with five common plant families.

  • Lamiaceae- Mint family
  • Apiaceae- Parsley family
  • Asteraceae- Daisy family
  • Rosaceae- Rose family
  • Fabaceae- Pea family
Identifying plants within families:

Imagine that you are at your friend’s garden party and you have yet to be introduced to your friend’s family. If I asked you to find all of your friend’s relatives at that party, how would you go about it? You could ask everyone’s name and sort it like that. Or, you could look for common characteristics and deduce family members with that information.

Identifying Characteristics:

There is a saying: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

We will start with a plant family that you know well:

Lamiaceae-Mint Family

Key Words: Square stalks and opposite leaves, often aromatic.

Members of this family include:

  • Basil
  • Mint
  • Sage
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Motherwort
  • Horehound
  • Catnip
  • Thyme
Lamiaceae Medicinal Actions:

Medicinal constituents include the strong aromatic essential oil, tannins, saponins and organic acids. The oil is obtained by steam distillation. In aromatherapy, the oil is used for its soothing effects. The plant has sedative, diuretic, tonic, antispasmodic and antiseptic properties.
Illustration courtesy of Botany In A Day -Thomas J. Elpel

Once you are familiar with the family characteristics, it is much easier to identify a plant within that family. You will recognise its basic shape and often know its medicinal properties.

Identifying a completely unfamiliar plant:

A few years ago, when we lived in Hluboka, a plant which I had never seen before started to grow in my yard.

My husband used to mow a smiley into our lawn. This is where the new purple-flowered plant started to grow.

Starting with flower shape, I began the process of identifying its family, genus and species.

This plant has:

  • united petals
  • 4 stamen of two lengths
  • a square stem
  • opposite leaves

Given these characteristics, I can safely put this plant in the Lamiaceae family.

Using these resources, I am easily able to identify its genus and species:

Self Heal Prunella vulgaris Lamiaceae

Self-heal is used for inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), diarrhea, colic, and stomach upset and irritation (gastroenteritis). It is also used for mouth and throat ulcers, sore throat, and internal bleeding.

Botanical illustrations are really helpful


There are poisonous and dangerous plants out there. Please be sure about your herbal identification before eating, drinking or rubbing it all over your face!!!!

We will cover the most common and most dangerous of the poisonous plants in the Herbalism 101 short course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: