Know Your Native Plant Families

As we approach our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium on February 24, where speakers will tell stories about their favorite native plants, they may make reference to using certain families of plants. Thinking about the organization of plants in this way makes landscaping with native plants even more interesting.

In a way, native plants are like people. The closer people are in genetic relation to each other, the closer they resemble each other. Family members share skin color, body type, hair texture, and facial features. While a unique name is given to each person to recognize their individuality, part of that name is kept the same and recognized both with close and distant relations. These closely-bonded people develop similar habitat preferences and interact with their environment in similar ways.

In 1758, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed a Latin naming system for plants and animals. Each plant or animal was given a “genus” (generic name) and “species” (specific name). Plant families include genetically related plants share floral structures, leaf arrangements, and stem shape. Multiple genera can make up a family. Along with the scientific name, people have also given each plant species many common names or nicknames.

Asclepias incarnata, otherwise known as swamp milkweed or marsh milkweed, is a member of the DOGBANE FAMILY.

For example, plants in the DOGBANE FAMILY have five-parted flowers, opposite leaves, and a milky juice in the stems and leaves with a bitter-tasting, toxic compound that protects the plants from being eaten by insects (excluding monarch butterfly larvae). In this family, the milkweed genus (Asclepias) has 22 different species in Kansas. You may not recognize from their common names that butterfly milkweed and green antelopehorn are related, but when you see their Latin names, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias viridis, you will know better.

Kansans have many good reasons for landscaping with native plants. Some of the best benefits are: 1) they provide natural beauty throughout the seasons, 2) they attract pollinators and other wildlife that are part of the food chain, 3) they offer drought-tolerant, environmentally-friendly plants to work with, and 4) they represent our state’s rich prairie natural heritage. By learning more about native plant families, you can add more diversity to your garden, creating a wider range of habitat for wildlife.

Additional plant families commonly found in the prairie, which are well represented at our plant sale, include:


Includes the largest number of species in the prairie; many flowers or “florets” in one head with both inner disk florets and outer ray florets.

Echinacea pallida, otherwise known as pale purple coneflower, is a member of the SUNFLOWER FAMILY.


These “legumes” have a distinctive five petal flower, form bean pods, and fix nitrogen into the soil thanks to special bacteria living on the roots.

Baptisia australis, also known as blue wild indigo or blue false indigo, is a member of the BEAN FAMILY.


These plants have square stems and opposite leaves that create aromatic oils. Most garden herbs are in the mint family.

Salvia azurea, also known as blue sage, is a member of the MINT FAMILY.


Flowers are colorless and wind pollinated, and stiff fibrous stems help carry fire when dormant. Most agricultural crops are in the grass family.

Schizochirium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is a member of the GRASS FAMILY.


Each summer at our Earth Partnership for Schools Institute, we begin our week-long K-12 teacher training with an introduction to plants through an exercise called “Plant Families”. This is a great way to give some organization to the understanding of how plants are named and classified. I think you will enjoy having access to this resource – check it out and have fun while learning your plant families! (Plant Families EPS Curriculum Activity)

Teachers examine grass flowers while learning about plant families.


False Indigo: Beautiful Baptisias Reach for the Sky

Every spring I marvel at the changing landscape, especially prairies that have been burned.  A seemingly lifeless and brown prairie is turned black by fire and reduced to ashes.  This important process removes last year’s growth, allowing the sun to warm the soil.  This warmth is just what native wildflowers and grasses need to emerge from their winter slumber.  They jump to life in just a few warm days, turning the charred plains emerald green.

In this new growth, there are some very recognizable plants that stand out.  Indigos rise from rocky hillsides and dot the landscape in early spring with beautiful blue, white and cream flowers.  They thrive in challenging environments because of their deep roots.  The roots of wild indigos can be quite extensive – reaching down over ten feet deep – making them impervious to drought.


Baptisia ‘Indigo Spires”

Locally, only two varieties of indigos grow in the prairies of south-central Kansas.  Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) has a stately posture.  The entire plant is stiffly upright and forms a miniature canopy with the attractive blue-green foliage.  The showy spires of small pea-like blooms develop in May.  Later in the season, oblong brownish-black seed pods emerge providing another highlight to this beautiful wildflower.  They love any sunny spot with well-drained soil.  They are difficult to move once established because of the deep tap roots.

Native Blue False Indigo

Native Blue False Indigo

Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteata) is the other indigo found in our area.  It is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom. In fact, one of the plants outside the Visitor Center is showing flower buds now, in the first week of April.  The creamy-white flowers are held horizontally to the ground in long prostate clusters.  Again, these flowers turn into brownish-black seed pods filled with small beans.  The entire plant has a fuzzy appearance from leaves to the stem.  They are tough and drought tolerant when planted in a well-drained soil with full sun.

Other nativars (cultivars of native plants) worth trying are Baptisia ‘Blue Berry Sundae’ Blue flowers, 24-36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Cherry Jubilee’ Maroon/yellow flower, 30-36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Lemon Meringue’ Lemon/yellow flowers, 36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Vanilla Cream’ Pastel yellow flowers, 24-36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Indigo Spires’ Dark Purple flowers, 36-48 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Blue Towers’ Blue flowers, 48-54 inches tall; and Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’ Pink flowers, 30-36 inches tall.  All of these varieties will be available at our upcoming plant sale in just a few weeks time.

Baptisia 'Lemon Meringue'

Baptisia ‘Lemon Meringue’

Baptisia 'Pink Truffles'

Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’

Baptisia 'Cherries Jubilee'

Baptisia ‘Cherries Jubilee’

I have always been enamored with Baptisia.  They are so resilient.  They effortlessly survive in the toughest conditions.  To see a whole prairie dotted with indigos as far as the eye can see is amazing.  The stunning beauty of these wildflowers can be brought home as well.  They adapt to any sunny landscape setting.  I can’t resist their charm and beauty.