Getting to know plant families, Myrtaceae

Eucalyptus smithiiI have a theory. The reason a plant such as Agapanthus is so popular is that people are familiar with it and they know its name. Though I would love to see it in its native South African setting, I dislike the pervasiveness of the plant.

But, to explain the theory, at one point in time, I would visit a nursery and be bewildered by all the plants for sale and not know where to begin. The position of ignorance when faced with so much choice was daunting. Knowing the name of something even if it was Agapanthus can be reassuring.

So, I made a conscious decision about fifteen years ago to learn more about plants and their names. Although I am more interested in native plants, I like all plants. Where they are from? What other ones are they related to? Knowing what they are and what plant family they belong to helps.

Family → genus → species

I grow chilli and capiscum plants for example, they are part of an often poisonous plant family Solonaceae. I think of the heat of the chile as a form of plant defense like the poisons in other species such as Datura from that family. Within the family is an important genus, Solanum, which contains such species Solanum tuberosum – the potato, Solanum lycopersicum – tomato and Solanum melongena – eggplant all from the Americas and apparently quite closely related.

For me, this relationship is based on recognition and memory. I am not sure yet how to recognise any of the Solanum species except on remembering what the plant is, what the flower looks like and what family it is from. Fortunately, other plant families have distinctive attributes and are quite recognisable.

Leptosermum squarrosum
Leptospermum squarrosum

I learnt early on that plants in the Sydney Region are often dominated by a small a number of families including Myrtaceae. Myrtaceae contains our iconic gums or eucalypts.

An Angophora capsule

They are quite clearly recognisable by their leaf shape and also have a capsule, which is also a distinctive feature of many plants in the Myrtaceae family and which usually persists on the plant long after it has dropped the seeds contained inside it. So, Leptospermum – Tea-trees, Melaleuca – Paperbark, Callistemon – Bottle-brush all have this dry capsule containing the seeds. Some that we are familiar with such as Kunzea Ambigua – Tick Bush, don’t have a capsule that persists. However, Myrtaceae has another great identifying feature; the flowers have lots of stamens. It is the stamens that are giving Eucalypts their distinctive look. So, even Kunzea can be recognised, no capsule that lasts, but lots of stamens.

Myrtaceae-7804_1A species which I saw on the weekend at West Head in  Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, I wasn’t sure of was Darwinia fascicularis. It is a species in another genus, Darwinia, of the family Myrtaceae. However, the spikes aren’t stamens at all, the anthers are hidden and the protruding bits are the style, but they are very beautiful plants.

Which brings me back to Agapanthus. Why when we have so many great plants, over 20000 in Australia, do we have to have garden’s full of the South African species, Agapanthus? I have my theory and if people learn the name of a few plants they might not just not order the ones that know.


If you want to pursue an interest in plant identification, these are some excellent resources,

Robinson, L.  Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney, 3rd Ed, (2003). Kangaroo Press.

I have a large colour reference  from Fairley and Moore which I use to complement Robinson’s book and they have more recently bought out a field guide sized, reference in colour.

Fairley, A and Moore, P (2010) Native Plants of the Sydney Region.CSIRO Publishing.

PlantNet, an online reference to Plants of News South Wales

Clarke, I and Lee, H (2003) Name That Flower: The Identification of Flowering Plants,  Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2003 is fantastic for its descriptions of flowers and flower parts.