Did you know the plants in your yard have cousins?

Keep your brain busy learning! After you finish your family history, maybe it's time to find out about the cousins of the plants in your yard.

Are you one of the many who’s been fascinated by genealogy?

When you researched online, you found the census and immigration databases and the public birth and death records. You developed your detailed family tree all the way back to the first branch arriving on the Mayflower or touching toes on Ellis Island. You’ve been bitten by a genealogy bug, your family roots have been documented and illustrated. Now what?

Tiny species narcissus - Feb 2015

Tiny species narcissus - Feb 2015

Why not think about genealogy in a new way, exploring that great green learning lab just outside your window?

You can build a family tree for the plants in your yard.

There is a classification system, called a taxonomy, for plants. It all started with Aristotle, who was one of the first to think about organizing the natural world around him in systematic ways.

By the 1700’s, scientists had determined that plants needed a better method to put plants into different buckets. No, I am not talking about actual buckets – or even self-watering containers here. During the 17th and 18th centuries, botanists and other explorers were traveling across the world, finding plants that felt or smelled familiar, but often looked different. Then, scientists began building a classification system to make sense of the similarities and differences in plants.

Remember learning about the plant and animal kingdoms in grade school? Plant taxonomy starts at the kingdom level, then splits into smaller and smaller groupings from there. Within a family of plants, the end result is a two-part name for a plant – the genus and species, sometimes with a variety tacked onto the end.

Spring herald, aka elbow bush, Feb 2015

Spring herald, aka elbow bush, Feb 2015

The lovely spring herald blooming in my garden this week and providing sip-worthy nectar for the bees is named Forestiera pubescens.

It is classified in the Olive family – Oleaceae. Looking upward in the taxonomy from spring herald, other plants in this same family include the olive tree, Olea europaea, plus the ash tree, lilac and forsythia shrubs, and the jasmine vine. One thing they have in common is leaf shape.

Looking sideways at the spring herald’s siblings, we find similar plants that are taller, shorter, like saltier or more acid soil, prefer wetter or drier soils, stay evergreen or lose their leaves. For siblings, the genus name is the same – Forestiera, while the species name changes. Forestiera neomexicana is the small tree found in the southwest, Forestiera segregata is a small evergreen tree that prefers Florida’s warmth and humidity, while Forestiera acuminata likes wet feet and is commonly called Eastern Swamp Privet.

What’s fun about plant taxonomy is that scientists have been known to move plants around. The poor plants can be renamed and put into different families or genera. As the categories change, you learn more about the distinctions between plants.

And, when you travel, find out what cousins of your garden are living in other locations, then stop by for a visit to see if you can spot how they are related!