What do we call horticultural families?
Sometimes the kinship between plants of a particular family seems obvious to us: no one will be surprised that peas and beans are classified within the same family. Both have a similar carriage, similar leaves, and produce the so recognizable and precious legumes.
At other times the common attributes that reveal evolutionary and genetic proximity between plants are eclipsed by differences of a general order: in little does it resemble, for example, the disordered and lowly lettuce to the haughty and elegant sunflower, and yet both plants belong to the family of the compounds or Asteraceae. The meticulous observation of their flowers reveals that in both cases these consist of a multitude of small flowers grouped, hence the name of composite plants. To reinforce the similarity, if we look closely at the small seeds of lettuce, we will undoubtedly remember tiny pipes. There are plenty of possible examples, we’ll just keep one more to illustrate how seemingly disparate the plants of the same family may look: eggplant and potato, at first glance, share almost no common traits. Even the exploited part is radically different: an aerial fruit in the aubergine and an underground tuber in the potato. However, its beautiful flowers, almost indistinguishable, indicate once again its great proximity. Both are solanaceous, as are the tomatoes and so many other family vegetables in our orchard.
Why should I know the families of my vegetables?
Although, as we have already seen, their appearance may be different, the plants of the same family share many characteristics, especially externally about the shapes of their flowers and fruits. In the same way, their internal physiology usually has many points in common, so they often have the same strengths or weaknesses against specific soil deficiencies, pests or infections, or have similar needs in terms of soil chemistry and nutrients.
From a practical point of view, these similarities have two consequences that directly affect our management of the orchard, and that will help us avoid and anticipate problems.
On the one hand, plants of the same family often tend to deplete the same elements of the soil where they are grown or to enrich it in the same way (e.g. legumes and their known fixation of atmospheric nitrogen).
Crop rotation is the fundamental technique to ensure the chemical equilibrium of the soil and to avoid the decimation of the elements necessary for plant development. It can be done by grouping and alternating crops in different ways, and one of the most commonly used systems is family rotation. Thus, during the years that the rotation lasts, it is possible to sow only once each family in the same bank. Although there are other criteria to order the crops in the rotations (for example based on the classification of the vegetables according to the degree to which they exhaust the soil, or according to which part is used) always take into consideration the families in one way or another.
On the other hand, plants of the same family often have a very similar response to soil deficiencies, pests or infectious agents. Thus, the problems we find in our vegetables, especially if we detect their initial symptoms, will be the alarm bell to act: depending on the problem we find it will be prudent not only to act on the affected species but on all of their family.
The main cultivated families
The list of horticultural families to use is very extensive and varies according to each region. Here we briefly describe the main ones, which we will deal with in more detail in specific posts.
These are plants of mostly tempered origin. The few cultivated species represent a small portion of the more than 20,000 species included in this extensive and cosmopolitan family, to which there are many other uses (animal feed, oil production, ornamentals, production of pharmaceutical and industrial principles). As it has been commented, their flowers are in fact a group of flowers, and they receive the name of floral chapters.
They are cultivated mainly to take advantage of the leaf and constitute the base of our salads. Sometimes they are bleached to avoid the bitter taste of ripe leaves, either by avoiding the sunshine of the plant or by keeping the leaves tight. There are winter species (endive), summer species (endive), and others that can be harvested, if the climate is not extreme, during a good part of the year (lettuce).
The artichoke gives us its fruits in autumn and can be kept productive for more than three years.
Main species: chicory, artichoke, endive, endive, lettuce.
Crucíferas or Brassicaceae
They are not in general lovers of the intense heat, supporting very well the cold some of them. For this reason, most of them are typical winter crops, although there are varieties that will ensure a good harvest throughout the year. Depending on the species, the root (turnips and radishes), the leaves (cabbages) or the fruit (broccoli, cauliflower) are used.
The cabbage flea, a small beetle that strives to eat the leaves of the crucifers when the heat comes, can be a plagadevastadora for all members of this family.
Main species: broccoli, cabbage, turnip, radish.
All of them are lovers of the heat in spite of coming from very diverse origins: the cucumber was already consumed in India more than 3000 years ago, the watermelons were cultivated in ancient Egypt, and the pumpkin comes from Central and South America. They need well nitrogenous soils, and because of their exuberance and productivity, they are soil-depleting species. They are crawling plants, which need enough space for their development.
These eye-catching vegetables generate the largest fruit in our orchard. Some of them, such as those of the pumpkin, have the virtue of being preserved for many months in a pantry.
Main species: zucchini, pumpkin, melon, cucumber, watermelon.
Legumes (Fabaceae or Papilionaceae)
Its main virtue, about soil fertility, is its ability to improve it by providing nitrogen atmospheric. And they are not only nutritious for the soil: they have the highest concentration of proteins of all vegetables. On a global scale, they play a crucial role in human nutrition, being, after cereals, the second most consumed vegetable family.
They owe their name of Papilionaceae to the beautiful shape of their flowers, with petals arranged in such a way as to resemble a butterfly.
Main species: chickpea, pea, broad bean, bean, bean, lentil.
They do not need especially nitrogenous soils, and generally, do not need very high temperatures. Most of the cultivated species of this group, of Eurasian origin, belong to a single genus, Allium, whose cultivation dates back at least 5000 years in ancient Egypt. Both bulbs and leaves are consumed, the latter generally while the stems are tender, before the maturation of the plant.
The horticultural species of this family can be parasitized by the onion fly (ancient Delia), whose larvae penetrate the leaves, roots and bulbs, damaging and weakening them.
Main species: garlic, onion, chives, leek.
It is a family from the old world, whose members produce small green flowers, barely visible, which are pollinated by the wind. Its leaves and rhizomes are consumed. Curiously enough, chard and beet, whose appearance and parts consumed differ so much, are nothing more than varieties of the same species (Beta vulgaris), originating in southern Europe. These plants are generally not very demanding in terms of soil and usually, tolerate salinity well (some wild species have adapted to live in brackish water).
Among the non-cultivated species, some of the so-called weeds most common in fields and orchards, such as the ash or Quintanilla (Chenopodium album), stand out.
Main species: chard, spinach, beetroot.
Although it is a widely distributed family in the wild, the cultivated species come almost entirely from South America. It includes some of the most consumed vegetables in the world, despite having among its non-cultivated members a large number of toxic and even deadly species (the mythical mandrake or the dreaded ammonium, to give a couple of examples). Solanine, the natural fungicide available to members of this family in unequal concentration, is the alkaloid responsible for its toxicity. Young plants present it in greater concentration, be careful not to collect immature plants! Despite having its own fungicide, mildew is one of the main enemies of Solanaceae.