Permaculture Tip of the Day – Plant Families

When designing a landscape and/or planting systems, we are often focused on what plant combinations, or ‘polycultures’, will function together as cohesive units. To understand what plants will function together, it can be overwhelming to look at specific plant species as there are thousands upon thousands!
To make things easier, we can scale back and look at a specific but also broad selection of plants in what is called the ‘family’ classification. The family groups the species and genus of plants in one larger classification. The family is specific enough to describe the:

  • Growth habit (above and below ground)
  • Growth expectancy (perennial, long or short-lived, annual, woody, etc.)
  • Nutrient requirements
  • Water requirements
  • Sun requirements
  • Beneficial environmental effects (insect nectary, dynamic accumulator, groundcover, pest deterrent)
  • Human uses (culinary, medicinal)
  • Pest and disease problems

If two plants are in the same family, they may compete for above and below-ground space, nutrients and water. They may also have similar pest and disease problems. In many cases, it makes sense to mix plant families in a polyculture so as not to create problems in their relationships. Plant families archetype will also help us to narrow-down the identification of an unknown plant. For instance, if an unidentified plant is herbaceous and has downward drooping flowers, it’s probably in the Solanacea (nightshade) family. Understanding plant families will give us a better grasp of the profound and daunting diversity of the Plant Kingdom. It will also allow us to properly allocate plants to specific locations relative to micro-climate and other plants.
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