Part of our Foundations of Herbal Medicine Course is spent in various ecosystems and elevations around the Southwest. This field work requires a basic understanding and application of botany. The following article is written as an introduction to this field for our herb students.
Science puts things into categories to organize information. It helps us understand and remember better than disorganized bits of info. The language used for scientific plants names is some combination of Latin and Greek with an occasional other language mixed in. These names in academic botany are universal and allow us to speak the language of plants anywhere in the world, regardless of what our mother tongue is.
The field of botany has a series of categories that goes from general to more specific. The first one, ‘Kingdom’ (as in Plant and Animal) is fairly well known and understood. The next categories, in order, are:
These categories are less important to most herbalists.
The final three categories are used often in the herb community and these are the terms that will be introduced and used in class. The categories are:
-Genus (Genera is plural)
Plants within a family all have shared anatomical characteristics. These characteristics are related to the reproductive parts of the plant such as the flowers. The Pine family plants all have cones and needles. Around Flagstaff, this family includes pines (Pinus), fir (Abies), Douglas fir (Tsuga) and spruce (Picea).
Plants within a family frequently have similar therapeutic qualities; similar enough that it is worthwhile learning the traits of a family to better understand the range of genera and species contained within it. Despite the similarities, there are enough differences that each genus, and sometimes the species, also needs to be learned on its own.
The botany community puts the ending “-aceae” on a name to designate that as a family. So the Pine family is Pinaceae, the Rose family is Rosaceae and the Cactus family is Cactaceae. Not all plant family names are this obvious but these are a good place to begin.
This word is similar to ‘general’ and is the next, more specific category after Family. The above example includes three of the genera for the Pinaceae family: Pinus, Abies and Picea.
Another common example in our everyday lives is the Mint family, known as Laminaceae. An obvious way these plants are similar is that they all have square stems and opposite leaves. Many common cooking herbs are in this category such as Rosmarinus (rosemary), Mentha (peppermint, spearmint), Thymus (thyme) and Ocimum (basil). You are encouraged to look at the leaves and feel the stems if you have any of these plants at home.
This is the most specific label in the botany world. Using our native ponderosa pine as an example, it is formally called “Pinus ponderosa (Pinaceae)”. To be helpful, the species name must always be combined with the Genus label. Including the family name in parentheses (Pinaceae) makes it more formal and academic but is not needed in everyday writing and speech.
Tom Elpel, in “Botany in a Day” uses personal people names as an example for this botanical concept. “Elpel” is the genus, while “Tom” is the species. Using only the species name, Tom, is not very helpful in identifying a person. Including the genus and the species (Tom Elpel) makes it much easier to understand who we are referring to.
To gain a deeper understanding in this aspect of herbal medicine, “Shanleya’s Quest” and “Botany in a Day”, both by Tom Elpel, are essential references.