An A-Z of Vegetable Families

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Learning to recognize which plants are related makes it easier to recognize their seedlings and meet their needs. Individual species of plants belong to a genus, a group of plants having characteristics in common. A genus, in turn, belongs to a larger family of genera, but, in practice, the word family is used for genus, like the peas and beans family.

This quick read gives you much information in a nutshell to acquaint you with the nature of veg­etable plants, so you can choose accord­ingly. They are grouped under their family, sharing specific growth habits.

Aizoaceae/ice plant family: New Zea­land spinach (Warrigal greens).

Alliaceae/Allium/lily family: Around 500 species of chives, leeks, onions, and all sorts of shallots—grow from seed. Grow garlic and bunching onions from division of bulbs. Grow day lilies (Hem­erocallis) for lily buds. All produce one seed ball per stem.

Apiaceae/Umbelliferae/carrot family: Grow from seed. Flowers range from white and pinkish to yellow. These plants hold their seeds in “umbels” like flat umbrellas, helipads for beneficial fly­ing insects. Let them set seed through­out the vegetable garden in spring, and predators will come in enough numbers to keep pests in check. Caraway, carrots, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, dill, fen­nel, parsley, and parsnips are friends to food plants under attack.

Asteraceae/Compositae/sunflower family: Artemisia species (the worm­woods). Some are grown from cuttings, but the following are grown from seed: chamomile, chicory, dandelion, endive, lettuce, salsify, scorzonera, shungiku (chrysanthemum greens), sunflower, and tarragon. Yarrow can also grow from root division. Asparagus, globe artichokes, and Jerusalem artichokes are perennials grown from crowns or roots.

Brassicaceae/Cruciferae/mustard family: This large family grows seeds in small pods like mini peas. Most have yellow flowers with four petals forming a cross. Includes many Asian greens and all gross feeders loving richly manured soils. Kale and brussels sprouts like a touch of frost. Although most brassicas can be grown throughout the year, they do better when planted late summer/autumn to grow through winter/spring. They tend to go to seed in hot weather, although some remain edible through­out summer. Most of the flowers and seed heads are edible: bok choy, Brassica juncea, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cab­bage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage (pe-tsai), collard, cress, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustards, choy sum, radish (white and mauve flowers), arugula, rutabaga, tatsoi, turnip, watercress. Swirl seed heads in a wok with sesame and olive oil.

Chenopodiaceae/goosefoot family: Beets (leaves edible), Swiss chard, Eng­lish spinach, perennial spinach, red orach, rainbow chard.

Convolvulaceae/morning glory family: Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), origi­nally from Peru. Prefers warm weather and are liable to become unwell when nights are cold.

Cucurbitaceae/gourd family: The genus Cucurbita comprises twenty-five species. There is pumpkin on one end and zucchini on the other end. In between are cucumber, gherkin, gourd, marrow, melon, and squash. The terms gourd, squash, and pumpkin are often used interchangeably, depending on local usage. One gardener’s butternut pumpkin may be someone else’s squash. All are vines, rambling or climbing. Sow late spring through summer.

Fabaceae/Leguminosae/pea family: The nitrogen fixers. Beans and fenu­greek (eat bulb, or use leaves and seeds in curries) grow from late spring through summer. Broad beans and most peas from autumn through winter/spring. Direct sowing. When harvesting, cut plants at ground level, leaving roots with nitrogen nodules in the soil.

Malvaceae/mallow family: Okra. Trop­ical/subtropical and needs a long frost- free season or a greenhouse. Grow from seed.

Poaceae/Grass family: Comprises most grain crops and sweet corn (all beloved by grazers). Grow sweet corn in summer to fix nitrogen.

Polygonaceae/buckwheat family: Buckwheat (from seed), rhubarb (grow from crowns). Both love summer in high altitudes.

Solanaceae/nightshade family: These plants mostly grow in spring/summer. They have five-petaled flowers—white, mauve, and purple—with prominent yellow anthers. The family includes eggplant, Cape gooseberry, bell pepper, chili, goji berry, pepino, potato, tama­rillo, tomatillo, tomato, and inedibles like tobacco and belladonna. The latter indicates that toxic solanins exist in all solanum plants to various degrees. They are believed to aggravate arthritis. A Solanaceae-free diet may make a dif­ference to a sufferer. That said, tomatoes are claimed to be essential in the preven­tion of prostate cancer. But any potatoes showing green patches, from exposure to light while growing, are toxic and must not be eaten by humans or animals.

Urticaceae/nettle family: Stinging nettle, essential plant food in compost and a delicious wild vegetable (stir-fry in olive oil), or herbal tea. Tibetan sage Milarepa (11th century) lived most of his life in a cave on a diet of mainly nettles. A much maligned food worth growing.

More from One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening


Excerpted from One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening: The Easy, Organic Way to Grow Your Own Food on a 3-Foot Square—Expanded Second Edition, © Lolo Houbein, 2008, 2010, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com