Plant Talk 1 Botany In a Day Online Class Introduction/Overview

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Hey plant enthusiasts! Happy Earth Day and blessed Ash Friday!

Seems fitting to start our class on this day. On one hand it is a day of celebration for our planet and its future sustainability. On the other hand it is a day for remembrance of the death and sacrifice that others have made that we may be here now. 

This class is a continuation of a course Frank Cook offered through email for 9 years. Frank passed away almost two years ago and i have picked up the torch while bringing this class to an online format. i strive to continue the work of Frank in a proactive way honoring his past contributions, current inspiration and the evolving needs of our community of plant people. More on Frank can be found under the About US tab on this website and at

i encourage your direct participation in this endeavor. What’s going on around you? The more you read, follow the suggested exercises and provide feedback, the more we will all learn together. We are all busy so feel free to come and goes as needed knowing the world of botany is always there to explore more. A lot of information is offered. Take what intrigues you and leave the rest for later…

However, please take time now to decide what type of commitment you can bring to this class. Try to honor that commitment by reading, reviewing, reflecting and getting out in nature. Pick at least one place that you will visit regularly, (weekly to at least monthly), to witness the cycling of the seasons. If possible pick a few places representing different ecotypes to observe changes over time. At least try to read the posts and suggested section of text as much as possible.

All identified species have a distinct two part scientific name that is used by botanists all over the world. The first part is the genus or generic name. The second part is the species or specific name. The genus is always capitalized and the species is not. Both names are usually underlined or italicized. An example is (Daucus carota) this is the name for the cultivated carrot.

Plants that share a genus name are similar but often differ in leaf shape, size, habitat, color, palatability or other characteristic. Plants that have the same species name often look almost exactly the same but may still look rather different due to breeding.

Modern family names for plants take part of the name of a typical genus in the family and then add aceae to the ending. For example the name of the Celery (Apium graveolens) family is Apiaceae.  In the notations below sp. = one species and spp. = multiple species of the same genus. As time goes on more common names will be followed by scientific names in parentheses. The scientific name of the family will also follow the genus and species to reinforce this higher level of connection. Most scientific names in these posts are linked to the incredible USDA database at Simply click on them to get much more information such as pictures, distribution maps, invasiveness, nativity and uses.

Often it is possible to guess whether a plant is edible, medicinal, or poisonous simply by the family it is in. However, this is not always the case. One example is the Celery family (Apiaceae), which contains many vegetables and spices as well as some of the most poisonous plants in the world! Learning the scientific names of plants helps to aid certainty in identification. Many plants that are very different share the same common names such as the Eastern Hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) in the Pine family (Pinaceae) and the Poison Hemlock plant (Conium maculatum) in the Celery family.

Approximately 250,000-275,000 species of flowering plants have been named in the world. Scientists have grouped these into around 15,000 genera and those are divided into around 500 flowering plant families (Heywood, Brummitt, Culham, & Seberg, 2007). You will know something significant about the majority of plants that you see in the temperate world if you learn the top 30 families around you!!! Another 50,000 or so species of plants that are precursors to the flowering ones have been named as well. These plants include Conifers, Ferns and Mosses.

i tend to select common names for families that are linked to the typic genus they are named after. i also tend to capitalize most parts of plant names. My reasoning is that the plants are just as important as people who always have their names capitalized. However, my name and the i that signify me are not capitalized in remembrance of the need for humbleness.

i spent most of the day working with plants at Chestnut Herbal School and Nursery . The main focus was propagating Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens), American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and removing the exotic invasives Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and English Ivy (Hedera helix).

Here in southern Appalachia, Spring is peaking with the Cherries (Prunus spp.), Forsythia (Forsythia viridissima), Daffodils (Narcissus spp.), Trout lilies (Erythronium spp.)  all being finished with blooming. Spring ephemerals like Trillium (Trillium spp.), Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Bellworts (Uvularia spp.), and several Orchids are out and about. Catch them or other short term spring wild flowers while you can if you have a botanical gardens or other appropriate nature spot around you.

The world contains many thousands of edible plants (Facciola, 1998; Johnson, 1999; Stanford, 1934; Sturtevant & Hedrick, 1972). North America has at least 4,000 edible species of plants alone (Couplan, 1998). Many indigenous groups have traditionally made use of hundreds of local plants on the continuum between food and medicine (Moerman, 1998). 75% of the world’s calories come from only 12 plants (Groombridge & Jenkins, 2002, p. 41). The great proportion of all nutrients and calories come from Wheat (Triticum spp.), Corn (Zea mays), and Rice (Oryza  spp.) (Cunningham, 2007, p. 189). Staples can vary from region to region. In the tropics Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), Cassava (Manihot esculenta ), Sugar Cane (Saccharum officinarum) are staples. Barley (Hordeum vulgare), Oats (Avena sativa), Rye (Lolium sp.), Soybeans (Glycine max ) and Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are staples of temperate places in the world . Drought tolerant crops like Millets (Panicum miliaceum, Eleusine coracana, Echinochloa esculenta, Pennisetum glaucum) and Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) are staples in Africa. Though the vast majority of foods come from very few crops many groups from Asia to Africa and Latin America still makes use of hundreds of plants where they live (Groombridge & Jenkins, 2002, p. 45).

When picking wild plants make sure that you get the plants positively identified. Know what part to use (Leaves, Roots, Flowers, Fruits). Also know how to use (Fresh, Steamed, Sautéed, in Tea, Infused or Tinctured) and what time of year to harvest. It is often easiest to start by going out with experienced people. A good guide is also essential. Take the time to know the few really toxic plants as much as choice edibles. Don’t pick by roadsides or other chemically intensive areas. If you only need the top then leave the roots of perennials. Don’t over harvest. Use all of your senses. Give thanks!!!

Thank you for all that have donated to the cause. i encourage everyone to donate as they are able ($50 suggested for the class). Your contributions whether monetary, commentary or energetic greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education.

Below are items to think about/comment on.

For the next class we will cover pages 1-3 and both inside covers of Botany In a Day 5th ed.

Why are you taking this class?

What are five plants you hold closely?

What food is ready for harvest around you right now?

What are a few plants blooming around you right now?

Please let me know your thoughts in general and anyway i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

Literature Cited

Couplan, F. (1998). The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. New Canaan, CT: Keats Pub.

Cunningham, W. P. S. (2007). Environmental Science: A Global Concern. Cunningham, Mary Ann. (9th ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill.

Facciola, S. (1998). Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Vista, CA: Kampong Publications.

Groombridge, B., & Jenkins, M. (2002). World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth’s Living Resources Inthe 21st Century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Heywood, V. H., Brummitt, R. K., Culham, A., & Seberg, O. (2007). Flowering Plant Families of the World (Revised.). Buffalo, NY; Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books.

Johnson, T. (1999). CRC Ethnobotany Desk Reference. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.

Moerman, D. E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany (1st ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press, Incorporated.

Stanford, E. E. (1934). Economic Plants. New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.

Sturtevant, L. E., & Hedrick, U. P. (1972). Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World. New York: Dover Publications.


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