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Natural Perspective

The Plant Kingdom: Dicots Overview

(Last modified: 21 July 1997)

The class Dicotylodonea is large and diverse. Dicot plants range from tiny plants to tremendous trees; fleshy succulents to delicate herbs that dry out almost as soon as they're picked; large and complex flower heads to tiny flowers that barely deserve the name; annuals and perenials; deciduous and evergreen. Each plant can be described with 100 features including size, shape, color, and features of the entire plant, leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Around 300 families of flowering plants are currently identified as Dicots. Learning the intricacies of the Subclasses, Superorders, and Orders is of limited value for the typical naturalist. Nevertheless, the Family groupings are quite helpful.

Here are some of the most prominent herb and shrub families in our region and probably most temperate areas.

Sunflower Family (Asteraceae)

[icon tidytips] The Sunflower family contains the largest number of plant species in the San Francisco Bay Area and many other parts of the world. The Sunflower family includes shrubs such as Coyotebrush as well as herbs such as Sunflowers, Daisies, Asters, Thistles, and Dandelions.

All of these plants have compound flower heads. While it appears to be a single flower, closer examination reveals that the head is composed of many separate flowers: tiny five-petalled "disk flowers" in the center and/or single-petalled "ray flowers" around the outside. Dandelions have only ray flowers; Thistles and Coyotebrush have only disk flowers; Sunflowers and Daisies have both.

While the compound flower feature makes Sunflower species easy to recognize, these plants are notoriously difficult to identify beyond the family level. Luckily not all Sunflower members are so difficult to distinguish -- the pretty Tidytips (Layia platyglossa) shown here are quite distinctive, for example.

Pea Family (Fabaceae)

[icon lupine] Pea family members seem to be everywhere in San Francisco Bay Area grasslands. The family includes the Acacia trees found both in and out of cultivation; shrubs such as Lupine (left), Broom, and Gorse; as well as the herbacious Vetch and Clovers.

Pea fruit grow in a their distinctive pod shape; the flowers of the Pea family are typically distinctive as well. The flower has a banner petal above, two wing petals on either side, and a keel consisting of two fused petals below. The keel is often hidden between the wing petals, as in the Lupine (Lupinus nanus) flower shown here, in which the wings of the flower to the left of the stem were pulled down to reveal the keel.

Geranium Family (Geraniaceae)

[icon geranium] Although we have only a small number of wild Geranium species in the Bay Area, they make up in number what they lack in diversity. And then, of course, there is the Pelargonium genus from which our cultivated Geraniums derive.

Geraniums typically have five petals, five or ten stamens and a pistil in five sections that split apart when the fruit matures. The Erodium genus uses this last feature in a most interesting way... Check it out!

Pictured here is the Cinquefoil Geranium (Geranium potentilloides), a common springtime flower in our grassy hills.

Carrot or Parsley Family (Apiaceae)

[icon footsteps of spring] The carrot family brings us many culinary herbs such as parsley, coriander, fennel, and dill; as well as roots such as parsnip and, of course, carrots. Poison Hemlock -- which earned its place in Western history when Socrates drank a cup-- is also a member of the carrot family.

Many early Spring flowers -- such as the Footsteps-of-Spring (Sanicula arctopoides) displayed here -- are members of this family; Sanicle foliage lines shaded mountain paths starting in mid Winter.

Carrot members are typified by dense clusters (umbels) of tiny five-petalled flowers.

Rose Family (Rosaceae)

[icon thi] The Rose family may well be the most important Dicot family, commercially. Roses themselves, of course, are cherished for their beauty, whether in a garden or a boquet. Many fleshy fruit such as strawberries and raspberries, apples, oranges, cherries and plums also belong to Rosaceae.

In the wild, various other Rose species add beauty to the environment. In early Spring, wild Strawberry plants make a strong showing in our area; later in the Summer shrubs such as Blackberry, Thimbleberry, and Salmonberry provide tasty trailside treats. Chamise (Greasewood, Chapparal) dominates parts of our chapparal environment, while Toyon (Christmasberry) is common in more open areas.

Rose flowers (its namesake Genus notwithstanding) are typically five-petalled with many stamens and sometimes many pistils as well -- such as in the Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) pictured here.

Purslane Family (Portulacaceae)

[icon miners lettuce] While small in number of species, this family contains some of my favorite edibles including Miner's Lettuce and Common Purslane, as well as the very pretty Redmaid flowers.

Purslane members are distinctive because they have only two sepals for their five-petalled flowers, as can be seen in this close-up of Miner's Lettuce (look carefully at the partially open flowers to see the sepals).

Heath Family (Ericaceae)

[icon madrone] The Heath family includes trees such as Madrone (pictured left), shrubs such as Blueberry, Manzanita, and Rhododendrons/Azaleas as well as numerous herbacious plants.

Many Heath species have beautiful urn-shaped flowers. All Heaths are dependent on fungi in order to survive.


Adding the Buttercup, Snapdragon, Mustard, Poppy, and Evening-primrose families would round out this group to an even dozen: knowing them personally would be a most rewarding experience. And then there's the Mint, Mallow, Oak, Borage, Pink, Waterleaf, Phlox and many more families -- all equally enjoyable. But you have to start somewhere...
Phylum: Angiospermophyta (flowering plants)
Class: Dicotyledoneae (starting with two seed-leaves)
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