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.


Katie’s Plant Picks: Mint Family

Working in the Arboretum greenhouse is a terrible temptation. I love my perennial garden at home and I never stop adding new specimens, so our selection of natives and adaptables this year is a treasure trove for me. I must truly exercise some self control to prevent my entire paycheck from turning into wildflowers. Until I win the lottery or inherit a rich uncle’s fortune, I will have to just pick a few favorites!

If you, like me, have a fond eye for every flower, then it may be helpful to guide your shopping this year by selecting a plant family to collect. Researching a scientific plant family and finding those species native to your area can help lend a theme to your garden, add cohesiveness, and curtail your wild garden spirit.

This year I am going to plant from the mint family, Lamiaceae, or formerly, Labiatae. Lucky for me, our upcoming sale has lots of gorgeous options!

A red variety of bee balm shown with solidago (Left) and a light purple monarda fistulosa (Right)

A red variety of bee balm shown with solidago (Left) and a light purple Monarda fistulosa (Right). Bee balm is part of the mint family.

Family Traits

Lamiaceae (lame-ee-ay-see-ee or lame-ee-ay-see-ii) is a large plant family with of over 3500 species. In science lingo, families are groupings of plant genera – a fancy way to say that these plants share common traits. A tell-tale sign of a mint family member is a strong aroma from the leaves, be it traditionally minty or not. These plants are some of the most valuable aromatic, culinary and medicinal crops in the world – rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil, salvia, hyssop, bee balm, and lavender are all a part of this big family.

Mint family plants commonly have square stems and flowers with bilateral symmetry (top and bottom do not match but sides mirror each other). The pictures in this post will hopefully help you to recognize some of the common traits shared among the mint family, and soon you will be identifying mint family species on your own!

Following are my top mint family picks from our plant sale, along with a list of varieties available.

Agastache 'Raspberry Summer' (left) Salvia azurea (right)

Agastache ‘Raspberry Summer’ (left)                                                                       Salvia azurea (right)

My Plant Picks

One of my top picks from the mint family is agastache, commonly known as hyssop or hummingbird mint. It thrives in sun and heat and its leaves emanate a wonderfully minty scent. Its tubular flowers attract hummingbirds to the garden. We are offering it in yellow, orange, blue, violet, and pink – perfect for whatever color combination you can dream up! Blooming from early summer to late fall, agastache is a showstopper year after year in the landscape.

A. foeniculumAgastache ‘Kudos Yellow’ ‘Kudos Coral’ ‘Raspberry Summer’ ‘Summer Sunset’
‘Summer Love’ ‘Blue Boa’ ‘Violet Visions’

Salvia is another sun loving flower that I will be adding to my garden this year. Pictured above is a native variety, growing as tall as 5 feet in the right conditions. Salvias come in all shapes and sizes; mound forming, tall and showy, wispy, etc., and many different colors. Their long flowering spikes add nice movement in the breezy garden and are beloved by butterflies. The sale will have saturated deep blues and magenta available, as well as lighter tones, pink and lavender.

S. azurea ‘Grandiflora’ – S. pitcherii ‘Nekan’ – S. greggii ‘ Furman’s Red’ ‘Ultra Violet’ – S. nemerosa Violet Riot’ ‘Pink Dawn’ ‘Crystal Blue’ ‘Caradonna’ – S. macrophylla ‘Hot Lips’ ‘Windwalker Royal Red’

If you love the smell of Earl Grey tea then monarda is for you! Commonly called bee balm or wild bergamot (because of its similar fragrance to Citrus bergamia, source of earl grey tea), the leaves of this plant release their pleasant aroma every time you water or brush past. This year we are offering many different varieties of monarda, some native and others hybridized, in various shades of red and purple.

M. fistulosaM. didyma ‘Pardon My Pink’ ‘Pardon My Purple’ ‘Pardon My Cerise’ ‘Leading Lady Plum’ ‘Grape Gumball’ ‘Lilac Lolipop ‘ ‘Cotton Candy’  ‘Cherry Pops’ ‘Rockin Raspberry’

It’s hard to only pick a few when we have so many ‘minty’ options! More than just the three discussed here, we also have catmint (Nepeta sp.), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and lavender (Lavendula ‘Phenomenol’), and many more. If you come to the sale, you know where to find me – hovering near the mint family plants, sniffing away!


Some information fact checked at
Photos from Dyck Arboretum archives and Walter’s Gardens media resources.