Rosaceae - the rose family
Much like the Asteraceae family, the rose family has some pretty complex taxonomy to reckon with. Though not nearly as large as the aster family, Rosaceae clocks in at a formidable 3000 species which are grouped into around 100 genera.
The rose family is home to some of our most prized wild and cultivated fruits: apples, plums, pears, strawberries, cherries, and brambleberries (raspberry/blackberry/etc), to name just a few.
As is often the case with angiosperm taxonomy, Rosaceae is defined by its flower morphology: nearly all species share the common traits of 5 separate petals, 5 separate sepals, and numerous stamens/pistils/styles. (The word ‘numerous’ here is actually a botanical term that denotes 10 or more. Rosaceaes usually have flower parts in multiples of 5.)
Those numerous sex parts give Rosaceae flowers their characteristic “fuzzy” look:
As for leaf morphology, you’ll see it all in this family: simple and compound, pinnate, palmate and beyond. Pretty much all species have alternate (rather than opposite) leaves, and many have serrated edges.
The Rosaceae family is divided into several subfamilies, which we need not dive into but might as well introduce:
there’s the Rose (Rosoideae) subfamily, featuring the genera
Rosa - rose, Fragaria - strawberry, and
Rubus - raspberry/blackberry);
the Dryads (Dryadoideae), which I believe are only found out west;
and the Almond subfamily (Amygdaloideae), which brings together
Prunus - plums/cherries,
Malus - apples,
Pyrus - pears,
Amelanchier - serviceberries, and
Crataegus - hawthorn, among others.
Ericaceae - the heath family
Ericaceae: another huge family, with over 4000 species to contend with. The heath family is also divided into several subfamilies, but for our purposes we really only need to cover one: the blueberry subfamily, Vaccinioidae.
The majority of species in this family are perennial shrubs, sometimes evergreen, but you’ll also encounter some trees and herbs as well.
Species within the Vacciniodae subfamily have urn- or bell-shaped flowers, which often grow in clusters, and are usually varying shades of red, pink and/or white. Another key trait to look for when out hiking in the wintertime is visible leaf buds.
Heaths are most commonly found in poor/marginal, acidic soil — one reason why growing cultivated blueberries can be so frustrating (believe me). Ecologically, many of these species will arrive on the scene following fire events. For example, one of my favorite spots to gather wild blueberries in Kentucky is out on a ridge at the Red River Gorge that burned 6 or 7 years ago — now it is absolutely overrun with several different species of Vaccinium, to the point that you could spend days out there gathering and not even make a dent in the abundance of berries.
The genera that we are most interested in as foragers in the eastern US all belong to the Vaccinieae (blueberry) tribe: primarily Gaylussacia (huckleberries) and Vaccinium (blueberries / huckleberries / cranberries / lingonberries etc). It can be tricky to narrow these down to the species, but don’t fret — to my knowledge, all are edible, though some may be tastier than others.
Liliaceae - the lily family
Last but certainly not least, I want to introduce you to the Lily family, which is the only family of monocots that we’ve encountered up to this point.
What the heck is a monocot? Well, so far all of the plant families we’e explored — and indeed, the vast majority of flowering plants on Earth — are what’s known as dicots. This terminology refers to a plant’s cotyledons, which are the embryonic leaves or “seed leaves” that are the first to emerge after a seed germinates.
As the terminology suggests, dicots have two seed leaves, while monocots have just one. But the differences don’t end there: this dichotomy informs all stages of plant development and sheds light on all aspects of a species’ morphology, as this handy chart illustrates:
Liliaceae is the only monocot family we will cover, but others to be aware of include Poaceae - grasses, Orchidaceae - orchids, Arecaeae - palms, and Iridaceae - irises.
The lily family is highly contentious and much debated among taxonomists, and we won’t bother with the nitty gritty here. But lilies are pretty common wild, cultivated, and feral flowers, and several species are edible, so it’s good to familiarize yourself with the key traits.
If it has showy flowers with parts in threes, chances are good that it’s a lily. More specifically, lily flowers usually have 3 petals and 3 sepals, which are often identical in size and color and are thus given their own special name: tepals.
The common daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) exemplifies these traits well, though in researching for this lesson I discovered that it’s no longer considered to be a member of this family anymore — taxonomists now place it in the closely related Asphodelaceae family, but I ain’t too worried about the taxonomy here because like said, it’s super confusing and esoteric.
Many species have tasty edible underground bulbs or corms, and the daylily has several choice edible parts at different stages in its development, but a word of caution: some of these species can be emetic, meaning they’ll give you diarrhea if you overdo it, or if you’re especially sensitive. (Sigh—yet another lesson I’ve learned the hard way over the years working with wild plants…)
On that note: this is where we will conclude our exploration of some of the world’s major plant families with edible species. Keep in mind that we have only barely scratched the surface here — there are more than 100 plant families out there, most of which contain hundreds or thousands of individual species.
Hopefully by now you have a better understanding of taxonomy, how different species and genera relate to one another within families, and what to look for when narrowing down your search for a positive ID on an unknown specimen.
If you want to dive deeper into the world of plant families, I would highly recommend Tom Elpel’s Botany in a Day, which I used as a primary source to compile these lessons. One student participating in this program also picked up Elpel’s Patterns in Plants Card Game, which I haven’t worked with myself, but he says it’s great, and given the quality of BiaD I think it’s probably worthwhile.