Introduction to Plant Taxonomy

Throughout this program, we will be drawing from many sub-disciplines of the biological sciences, primarily botany, ecology, and taxonomy.

Botany is the study of plants.

As we proceed, we will explore topics like morphology (physical characteristics), life cycle & reproductive cycle, as well as ethnobotany: the study of the uses of plants by people.

Ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms, as well as their relationship with their environment.

To know the ecology of a plant means to know its preferred growing conditions, who pollinates it, who eats it, what kinds of associations it may have with soil biota or other plant species, and on and on.

(As you may know if you follow my work, my education was in ecology and it is one of my most favorite subjects to explore!)

Taxonomy is the science of classifying organisms.

Taxonomy is the way we describe how organisms are related to one another. A foundational understanding of taxonomy is crucial to a working knowledge of botany, and by extension, edible wild plants.

Back in the day when taxonomy was created in the late 1700s, it was based primarily on morphology, which can be useful, but the science has come a looooong way as our understanding of evolutionary development has matured. Nowadays we have DNA evidence to back up taxonomical classifications.

Taxonomy is where binomial nomenclature — a species’ Latin name — comes from.

Every organism known to science is classified along the following hierarchy:


Taxonomic classification begins with the rank of kingdom, which tells us whether an organism is a plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, or archaea. From there we narrow things down on and on until we get to the organism’s Latin name, which is composed of the Genus and Species.

Don’t let this big long list intimidate you — for our purposes, we only need to worry about the top three ranks: Family, Genus, and Species.

One of the most valuable pieces of information I can pass on to you is the importance of learning the key traits of the more common plant families.

Plants in the same family generally have similar characteristics, and often, similar uses.

So if you’re familiar with the general traits of the Malvaceae (Mallow) plant family, for example, which contains thousands of species, you need not know the exact species in front of you to recognize the family’s distinct flower morphology and the mucilagenous substance that results when you pulverize its leaves, and conclude that this specimen could be useful as a soothing agent for a burn or a sore throat.

Knowing the general characteristics of plant families will go a long way towards sharpening your identification skills as well as boosting your confidence when IDing new species for the first time.

Another example: Field mustard, a wild plant very closely related to our cultivated cruciferous veggies, is in the Brassicaceae family, in the genus Brassica, and it bears the specific name rapa.

If you’re encountering this plant for the first time, even if you don’t know much about its specific characteristics, there are a number of traits that will clue you in to the fact that it is a member of the Brassicaceae (Mustard) family:

When I look at this drawing, what stands out to me are the following characteristics: cotyledons (seed leaves — first set of leaves to emerge); leaf shape & texture; flower bud size, shape & number; flower morphology, overall growth habit.

Because I am familiar with the key traits of the family, I can examine each of those traits and come to the reasonable conclusion that this specimen is a member of the Brassicaceae family, even if I have no idea what the actual species is.

As we venture deeper into the world of edible wild plants, we will regularly refer back to families.

To learn more about some of the major plant families, definitely invest some time in this video from Tom Elpel: