2023 Plant Talk 5: Pages 25-36 6th ed. 27-36 5th ed.

Warren WIlson College Graduation Flowers by Marc Williams and Michael Gentry


Plant Talk 5 Pages 25-36 6th ed. 27-36 5th ed.

Greetings Plant Enthusiasts!

What’s Blooming in southern Appalachia

Indian Physic (Porteranthus sp. syn Gillenia sp.), Golden Banner (Thermopsis spp.), Asian Dogwood (Cornus kousa), Avens (Geum sp.), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Bluets (Houstonia spp.), Buttercups (Ranunculus spp.), Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra sp.), Columbine (Aquilegia spp.), Daisys (Leucanthemum spp.), Fleabanes (Erigeron spp.), Forget Me Nots (Myosotis sp.),  Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), Lupines (Lupinus spp.), Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), Partridge berry (Mitchella repens), Peony (Paeonia spp.) Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa), Privet (Ligustrum spp.), Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Rhododendron spp., Roses (Rosa spp.),  Rye (Secale cereale), Shooting Star (Dodecatheon sp.), Smoke Tree (Cotinus sp.), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus), Sweet William (Dianthus spp.), Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)  Virginia Sweet Spire (Itea virginica), Weigelia, Wheat (Triticum sp.),  Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) are some of the many things blooming well right now around Asheville, NC.  

Below is a link to a photo album with most of these plants and many more from this time of year around southern Appalachia and a bit abroad as well.


What plants around you are in flower or fruit? Include a few down below in the commentary section if you get a chance. Make a bouquet for someone else you love and one for yourself too! Think, colors, heights, textures, smells….Some flowers hold up better than others. Members of the Asteraceae, Brassicaceae and Poaceae are particularly good choices. For 15 years i did the flowers for the Warren Wilson College graduation stage along with my friend and mentor Michael Gentry as mentioned in the last class. Many of the flowers above were employed to that effect. Unfortunately 2020’s in person graduation celebration was cancelled due to the pandemic and in the years since i have heard nothing of continuing the tradition… Alas, life goes on for the blooms nonetheless even with all our human stress!

Botany in a Day Pages 25-36 6th ed. 27-36 5th ed.

Using Keys

Using keys can be downright intimidating to some and at least a bit tricky to get a hang of for most. Organizing your thoughts in a systematic logical progression is essential. Pages 25 (5th ed.) and 23 (6th ed.) offer a basic tutorial.

The monocots and dicots are a big separation amongst the flowering plants. The monocots have their own key on page 36 (5th ed.) pgs. 34-35 (6th ed.). We discussed the differences in the last class and they can be revisited on pg. 14 (5th ed.) or pg. 15 (6th ed.).

Next to the monocot key is a useful key to woody plants by their fruits. The trees and shrubs are a very accessible group to get to know as most areas have them in the tens versus lower growing (herbaceous) plants by the hundreds or thousands.

The Asters are a natural distinction unto themselves numbering in the thousands in North America alone. Something on the order of about 1 in 9 plants in North America inhabit the Aster family. They are often broken into a number of tribes of which Elpel offers descriptions pages 161-172 (5th ed.) and 163-174 (6th ed.)

Understanding the terms illustrated in both inside covers and on page 26 (5th ed.) and 24 (6th ed.) is essential to going deep with your exploration of botany. However, much enjoyment can come from looking at the major patterns illustrated along pages 27-36 (5th ed.) and 25-35 (6th ed.).

Regular Dicot Flowers with Numerous Petals

Not too many wild plants fit in this group and many of them are succulent or aquatic. The Ranunculaceae is a notable exception. Sometimes the members of this family only have sepals that look like petals.

Irregular Dicot Flowers

Most of these plants have distinctive flowers that are easy to distinguish. However in the Lamiales order i.e. Mints (Lamiaceae), Snapdragons (Scrophulariaceae), Verbenas (Verbenaceae) and Plantain (Plantaginaceae) it can get tricky. This is especially the case in the subtropics/tropics where several more families such as the Acanthaceae, Bignoniaceae and Gesneriaceae join the party in a big way. Most of the Fabaceae, Violets (Viola spp.) and Touch me Nots (Impatiens spp.) are rather apparent when in flower and from the habits of their leaves. Ranunculaceae members that are irregular are also rather distinctive once in flower. It bears noting that these can be some of the most poisonous plants around especially Larkspur (Delphinium spp.) and Monkshood (Aconitum spp.).

Regular Dicot Flowers 0, 3, 6 petals

This is an uncommon pattern as you may recall. Typically monocots have parts in 3 and 6s not dicots. This is mostly a primitive characteristic seen in the Magnolia (Magnoliaceae), Bay Laurel (Lauraceae), Pawpaw (Annonaceae) and Barberry (Berberidaceae) families amongst others regarding dicots. It makes sense for those who have the 6th ed. when you look at the plant family tree of evolution on page 16. You can also see an illustration at the following link.

Regular Dicot flowers 4 petals

i can often place a plant to family from four petals, form and bloom time alone in temperate realms. Brassicas flower early and tend to be yellow, white or occasionally purple.

The Coffee family (Rubiaceae) has mostly square stemmed low growing members in the temperate world with petals that are white and occasionally blue or pink and are blooming now as well. Some examples include Cleavers/Bedstraw/Sweet Woodruff (Galium spp.), Bluets (Houstonia), Blue Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis) and Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens).

Members of the Heath Family (Ericaceae) blooming now often have their petals fused into an urceolate or “urn” like shape. Great examples not yet mentioned include Doghobble (Leucothoe spp.) and Pipsissewa (Chimaphila spp.).

The Evening Primrose (Onagraceae), Loosestrife (Lythraceae) and Hydrangea families (Hydrangeaceae) tend to bloom later in the spring and more in the summer while the Gentianaceae tends to bloom in the fall with the notable exception of Virginia Pennywort (Obolaria virginica) which blooms in the spring. 

The Olive family (Oleaceae) is the most prominent woody group in the temperate zone of the U.S. with four petals. It tends to contain representatives here with fragrant white and sometimes blue petals. Some examples include Ash (Fraxinus spp.), Devilwood (Osmanthus spp.), Fringe Tree (Chionanthus spp.), Lilac (Syringa spp.), Jasmine (Jasminum spp.), the USA native Swam Privet (Forestiera spp.) and the aforementioned exotic invasive Privets (Ligustrum spp.).

The Autumn Olive family Elaeagnaceae also has four petals with fragrant flowers and members that can tend to be invasive at times. Elaeagnus and Shepherdia are the main genera in the USA. One distinction is that the Elaeagnaceae tend to have silver colored undersides to their leaves.

A student recently brought to my attention that the Crassulaceae can have four petals as well though i tend to think of them normally having five. The typically woody and not very diverse in North America Thymelaeaceae can have four petals too. Represented in native form by the genus Dirca and various members of the Daphne genus are cultivated and at times escaped especially in the north.

Regular dicot flowers 5 united petals

Many of these plants with tubular flowers have distinct inflorescences that make it easy to place them in a family. Phlox in the Polemoniaceae are an excellent example that are or will be blooming soon in many locales. Members of the Borage family (Boraginaceae) that now includes the Waterleaf family (Hydrophyllaceae) are other examples currently blooming.

Regular Dicot Flowers 5 separate petals

This is by far the most common pattern as can be seen from all the illustrations on page 33 (5th ed.) and 31 (6th ed.). Thus, it will take the longest to learn and distinguish.

Differences of Distinction

Flowers are by far the easiest way to determine a plant. But, the goal overtime is to build a portfolio of distinguishing characteristics including growth habit, leaf orientation, leaf form, leaf edge, color, hairiness, smell, fruit characteristics, bark, sap, ecotype, etc.

Just notice characteristics and differences…attention to detail is key. The vocabulary of botany can take you as far as you want to go. A flora may feature hundreds of technical terms. However, with the knowledge above and practice with the keys in Botany in a Day you can go really far toward a practical understanding of the plants around you. However, i encourage you to check out the Flora for your area to get a sense of the overall scope. A great flora for the Southeastern US by Alan Weakley can be downloaded for free www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm. There is also an accompanying app just recently upgraded. https://ncbg.unc.edu/research/unc-herbarium/flora-apps/

A good book or two on plant names and botanical terminology may also be helpful  (Bailey, 1963; Beentje, 2010; Cady & Gordon, 2005; Coombes, 2002; Gledhill, 2002; Harris & Harris, 2001; Kratz, 2011; Pell & Angell, 2016; Stearn, 2002, 2004)

Here are some other botanical patterns modified from what i covered for southern Appalachia while teaching for the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine recently and included in my teacher after action report to them… Hopefully you find these trends useful though wherever you may be.

Families with white sap:

Mostly poisonous (Apocynaceae, Euphorbiaceae)

Mostly edible (Asteraceae, Caricaceae, Moraceae)

Families with red/yellow sap (Clusiaceae, Haemodoraceae, Papaveraceae),

Families/Plants with deep venation

(Cornaceae, Dioscoreaceae, Hypericaceae, Plantago, Rhamnaceae, Smilacaceae)

Families/Plants with square stems

(Lamiaceae, Rubiaceae, Verbenaceae, Urtica dioica.)

Woody plants with compound leaves:

Alternate (Anacardiaceae, Fabaceae, Juglandaceae, Rosaceae, Simaroubaceae)

           Opposite (Bignoniaceae, Acer negundo, Fraxinus spp., Sambucus spp.

Plants with offset leaf bases:

Basswoods/Lindens (Tilia spp.), Elms (Ulmus spp.), Mulberry (Morus spp.) Witchazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Plants with whorled leaves:

Some Joe Pye weeds (Eutrochium spp. syn Eupatorium spp.), Galium spp., Liliaceae, Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia), Whorled Pogonia (Pogonia spp.)

Glaucous Plants:

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Raspberries (Rubus spp.), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.)

What plants can you add to the patterns above from your area or other knowledge?

For the next class we will cover major mostly non-woody temperate cultivated food plants it will be posted around May 20th.

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary under this class. i would really love to hear what you have to say!!!

In the meantime…

-What plants around you are in flower or fruit? Include a few down below in the commentary section if you get a chance.

-Make a bouquet for someone else you love and one for yourself too! Think colors, heights, textures, smells….

- Read the entries in Botany in a Day and the site here on the 7/8 major families discussed last time if you have not already.

- Attend a workshop or a class and write up a brief description of plants or information learned.

- Begin to make a photo album of a certain nature spot while the seasons progress.

- Post any clear photos of question plants to comments below, Facebook or send in an email.

Praises to all that have donated to the cause! i encourage everyone to donate as they are able financially, with commentary, and/or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and anyway i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

Literature Cited

Bailey, L. H. (1963). How Plants Get Their Names (2nd ed.). Dover Publications.

Beentje, H. (2010). The Kew Plant Glossary: An Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Terms. Richmond, Surrey: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Cady, M., & Gordon, S. (Eds.). (2005). Plant Names Explained, Botanical Terms and their Meaning. Boston, MA: Horticulture Publications.

Coombes, A. (2002). Dictionary of Plant Names. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Gledhill, D. (2002). The Names of Plants (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, J., & Harris, M. (2001). Plant Identification Terminology (2nd ed.). Spring Lake, Utah: Spring Lake Publishing.

Kratz, R. F. (2011). Botany For Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: For Dummies.

Pell, S., & Angell, B. (2016). A Botanist’s Vocabulary: 1300 Terms Explained and Illustrated. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Stearn, W. T. (2002). Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners: A Handbook on the Origin and Meaning of the Botanical Names of some Cultivated Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Stearn, W. T. (2004). Botanical Latin (4th ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press.


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