PLANT ID: Using patterns to identify plants at The Parklands
Being able to recognize patterns in a plant’s features can be very helpful in identifying plants you find throughout The Parklands. At the family level of scientific classification, plants in the same group have similar characteristics, such as the same number of flower petals or an opposite branching pattern. Knowing which family a plant belongs to offers important details about a plant, for example whether or not it is edible or if it has specific medicinal uses. When it comes to knowing about a plant, it is often much more helpful to know which family it belongs to rather than just being able to name it. A few things to consider when identifying a plant include leaf shape, branching pattern and type of inflorescence (the flower head and arrangement of flowers).
A fairly easy plant family to recognize is the Mint family, Lamiaceae. Plants in this family usually have opposite leaves and square stems. Many of the species are very aromatic and have high levels of volatile oils. Some plants from this family that we grow in the park (and that you will also find in the wild) include Monarda spp. (Bee Balms), Agastache spp. (Hyssops), Perovskia (Russian Sage) and Pycnanthemum muticum (Mountain Mint). Many other herbs, like Oregano, Rosemary, Lavender, and Basil are also in this family. You may recognize problem weeds in your landscape like Henbit and Purple Deadnettle which are in the mint family. Some plants in the mint family can be used to heat the body, activating a sweat, which can help break a fever. These plants also have antimicrobial properties for helping to fight off infection, have the ability to soothe respiratory issues and help with other problems like insomnia, headaches and anxiety.
Another group that you see a lot of in The Parklands is the Aster family, Asteraceae. When it comes to number of species, the only other family that is thought to come close is the Orchid family, Orchidaceae; both are estimated to have around 24,000 different species. The most recognizable feature of these plants is a composite flower. This means that what appears to be one flower head is actually made up of multiple smaller flowers called florets, which are surrounded by leaf-like structures called bracts. One classic example of a composite flower is a sunflower- the yellow “petals” around the outside are called ray florets, and they surround the disc florets. Some Aster can have more than 1,000 florets, and some species can have only ray florets or only disc florets.
Various Aster that you will find in the Parklands include Rudbeckia spp. (Black and Brown Eyed Susans, Orange Coneflower), Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed), Solidago spp. (Goldenrod) and Coreopsis. Keep an eye out for the shrubby purple Aster in some of our beds right now, Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’. The most infamous of all weeds, the Dandelion, is also a member of the Aster family, as are the Chrysanthemums seen in landscapes in the fall. Medicinal uses for Asters vary widely from plant to plant and include everything from antispasmodic (used to suppress muscle spasms) to pain relief and soothing skin irritation.
A third common group is the Pea family, Fabaceae. This is the third largest family with around 20,000 species. Many are economically important, including Arachis hypogaea (Peanut), Glycine max (Soybean) and other kinds of beans and peas. These plants can be recognized by their fruit, a legume, which is a simple dry fruit that normally splits open along a seam. This is usually called a pod. They also have compound, stipulated leaves. Many well-known Kentucky trees belong to the Pea family, such as Cladrastis kentukea (Yellowwood), Gleditsia triacanthos (Honey Locust) and Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky Coffeetree). We grow a few plants in the park which belong to this group, like Cercis Canadensis (Eastern Redbud)and Baptisia spp. (False Indigo). Also in this family is one of the most common plants in our meadows, Chamaecrista fasciculata (Partridge Pea), which has yellow blooms mid-summer through fall. One interesting feature of plants inFabaceae is that their roots have structures called root nodules, which house bacteria that take Nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a form that plants can use. This is especially useful in agriculture to improve soil quality.
Nature expresses itself in patterns, and it is incredibly useful to be able to recognize those patterns in plants.
Matt Jenne was born and raised in Louisville, KY. He attended Eastern Kentucky University and graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Horticulture in 2012. While he was in school, he worked for Louisville Metro Parks as a member of the Landscape Division. Matt started as a Park Attendant for the Parklands in early 2013 and was promoted to Zone Gardener shortly afterwards. He currently manages the plantings in the Humana Grand Allee, and also runs his own landscape business on the side. In his free time, Matt enjoys hiking, camping and gardening.