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Veggie Families

When we divide vegetables into groups or families, we can do that in two completely different ways. Each of these is useful, but for different purposes.

The first approach is to categorize veggies based on the part of the plant we eat, ranging from its roots to its fruits — from the part that reaches down into the earth to the part that swells up from a plant's flower and contains its seeds. This approach produces the set of categories in the list on the left.

Parts of Plant       Genetic Inheritance
Fruits       Cabbage Family
Flowers & Buds       Beet Family
Pods       Squash Family
Seeds       Legume Family
Leaves       Parsley Family
Stalks       Onion Family
Blubs       Daisy Family
Tubers       Potato / Tomato Family
Roots       Mint Family

The list on the right represents a completely different approach to categorizing vegetables. There veggies are organized according to their family relatedness. Parents, children, grandparents, grandkids, aunts, uncles, close and distant cousins are all grouped together within individual families — families that, in most cases, trace their roots back to the same ancestors who once grew wild in different parts of the world.

It's a good idea to be familiar with both of these approaches to categorizing vegetables. So we're going to show you both. We'll start with the "parts of the plant" approach because it's more intuitive and easy to remember. Then we'll look at the groupings based on family relatedness.

Plants Grouped by the Parts We Eat

The Robbins Farm Garden plays host to about 30 different edible plants. Here they are grouped according to the part of each plant we generally eat. (As you probably guessed from looking at it, the plant to the left is not one single plant but a composite. It's made up of several different types of veggie plants, to show more clearly the different parts we're talking about here.)

So, what stands out for you when you look at this pie chart? For some, it is the fact that the big majority of the plants in the garden are ones that we grow for their fruits or their leaves. Between them, fruits and leaves account for about 2/3rds of the different types of plants in the garden, with leaves taking the gold medal and fruits the silver. (The bronze goes to roots, with another 10% of the garden's veggies.)

Parts of the Plant

For others, what stands out is that not all of the veggies in the garden are either fruits, leaves, or roots — that there are still other parts of a plant that we sometimes eat as a vegetable. Take, for example, flower buds. Many people go through life not realizing that the best parts of plants like broccoli and cauliflower are, in fact, the immature buds of these plant's flowers. They don't know that onions are the swollen base of a plant's stalk. Or that potatoes are like a fruit that swells up on a plant's roots. (Or did you know that potatoes and tomatoes can be crossbred to produce potomato plants? But that's a story for later!)

Finally, what you can surely see from this chart is that lots of different parts of different plants can be involved in making those plants interesting to us opportunities for something to eat. Veggies aren't so simple. They are full of interesting facts. They are full of intersting flavors.

9 Families of Veggie Relatives

Let's start with the family that has the most members growing here at Robbins Farm Garden. That's the Cabbage family.

Cabbage Family

As you can see, eight different members of this family grow here. Four are plants we want primarily for their leaves. These are cabbage, kale, arugula, and collard greens. With just one, nasturtiums, we eat its flowers. With another two, broccoli and cauliflower, we eat their immature flower buds. Lastly, with radishes we're eating roots. Through one plant or another, then, the cabbage family contributes literally heads, shoulders, knees and toes to our eating pleasures.

Other well-known members of the cabbage family that are not planted in this garden include the mustard plant, turnips, brussels sprouts, rutabaga, horseradish, and watercress.

The cabbage family got its start on lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Asia and Africa. The family breaks down into three major groups:

  1. direct descendents of ancient sea cabbages that grew right on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea
  2. the mustard side of the family that grew further inland, and
  3. the newcomers who, measured on the agricultural timescale, came on the scene much more recently.

The direct descendents from sea cabbages include cabbages themselves, kale, and collard greens. All these inherited leaves with thick, tough veins and sturdy, wax-like skins. The ancient sea cabbages needed these features to combat the dehydrating effects of salt in the sea air. These direct descendants retain these features today.

Radishes, arugula, and nasturtiums all belong to the mustard group. They developed parallel to or descended from ancient mustard plants. What they all have in common is a peppery hotness in their tastes — something that has always had lots of appeal to many people since the very beginnings of agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Finally, broccoli and cauliflower belong to the relative newcomers on the overall agricultural timescale. They have been around for just the last 2,000-2,500 years. First grown in Italy, they became popular in the United States only in the last 100 years, following the immigration of millions of Italians to the U.S. in the late 1800's.

Beet Family

The Beet family has three members here in the garden: Swiss chard, beets, and amaranth. The fourth well-known member of this family, not grown in the garden, is spinach.

Chard is by far the oldest member of the beet family. Its origins are similar to those of the thick-veined, tough-skinned cabbages, whose features it shares. Amaranth runs a close second. It was known and loved by the ancient Greeks. Beets are the baby in the family. They date back only about 200 years to northern Europe. That's why it's a mistake to call chard a beetless beet, as some people do. It makes much more sense to call a beet a bulbous chard.

One nice thing about all the members of the beet family is that each can be harvested on a continuous basis. They don't overload you at some peak moment in their growth cycle. Instead, you can harvest their leaves two or three at a time, taking the outer, mature leaves, leaving space for inner, younger ones to grow out further. Beet roots can also be harvested over an extended period, from small, very young bulbs up to when they are big and fully mature.

Squash Family

The squash family comes from Central America and is huge, with lots of different varieties taking lots of different shapes and colors. We have four members of the family in this garden: zucchini, patty pan squash, crookneck squash, and cucumbers. Other well-known members of the family not growing here include pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupe, other types of melons, and many other types of gourds.

The four members of the squash family we're growing here are all ones that you must keep a close eye on once their flowers come in bloom. For each, blooming is followed by a very rapid spurt in growth, a peak, and then a gradual decline. Each tastes its best if you can harvest it at its peak, when it's still young, before it goes too far into what for most is a tough and bitter old age.

Legume Family

Legumes — mostly beans and peas — make up a very big family, one with roots all around the world. Its representatives here in this garden include green beans, soybeans, and peas. Some well-known members of this family not represented here include lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, plus the field plants alfalfa and clover that are generally fed to animals.

On a pound for pound basis, beans and peas supply more protein than any other family of vegetables. Because of that, they are very important world vegetables, especially in less wealthy countries, where meat plays a less important role in people's day-to-day eating patterns.

Legumes are also unique among vegetables in that, at the same time that they draw nutrients from the soil in which they grow, they also help fertilize it in a very big way. Legumes help put nitrogen into the soil — one of the most important basic elements for growing healthy, vigorous plants — in a form that makes it useful to other plants.

Legumes do this by providing a home where a special breed of bacteria called diazotrophs can set up shop and do their work. These homes are little pimple-like nodes in the legumes' roots. Other plants don't have these little nodes in their roots, and therefore don't attract these special bacteria. Only members of the legume family.

Parsley Family

The big surprise here in the Parsley family is, of course, the carrots. What are they doing here? They do, in fact, belong. This is not a mistake. The carrots we know today evolved from what was once very much a parsley-like plant. We cover that story over in the profile on carrots. So we won't repeat it here.

The three members of the Parsley family represented here are, as you can see, parsley, dill, and carrots. Well-known members of the family not planted in the garden include other herbs like anise, caraway, cilantro, cumin, and fennel, plus two other non-herbs veggies: parsnips, a root vegetable, and celery, a stalk vegetable.

The three members of the parsley family that are not herbs are all fairly recent newcomers on the agricultural scene. All were developed by gardeners from more parsley-like plants within the last 1,000-2,000 years.

Onion Family

The Onion family is represented in this garden by onions and chives. Other well-known members of the family not in the garden include scallions (thinner, less bulbous onions), leeks, garlic, shallots, asparagus, and lilies. Surprised by that last one? Yes, the flowers we call lilies are part of this family. In fact, some people call this the Lily family, not the Onion family.

The distinguishing feature for several of the members of this family is their edible bulb. An onion's bulb is made op of the very bottom of the plant's leaves, all bulked up like a weight lifter's biceps, then compressed together into a single ball.

With onions, garlic, and leeks, we eat these bulbs. With chives, we eat the plant's leaves. With asparagus, we eat its stalks.

Daisy Family

Here's another surprise, huh? Lettuce is related to flowers.

It's true, however. Lettuce is part of a huge family of flowers, only a few of which we generally eat. The family contains over 20,000 members. But only a dozen or so ever make it to our dinner tables. Two planted in this garden besides lettuce are sunflowers and calendula. Other members of the family not planted here that you might have heard of (or even eaten) include endive, escarole, chicory, raddichio, dandelions, and artichokes.

Many call this family the Daisy family, as do we. But others call it the Astor family; still others, the Sunflower family; and still others, the Composites family. That last name comes from something unique to this family of plants, the composition of its flowers. What looks like a flower within this family is not, in fact, just a single flower. Instead, it's a composite of many tiny, tiny flowers all bunched very, very closely together.

For most of the members of this family that we're interested in for eating purposes, we want them for their leaves, to use in salads and sandwiches. These include lettuce, endive, escarole, chicory, raddichio, and (for the adventursome) dandelions. With calendula, our interest is primarily in the petals, to go also into salads. And for sunflowers, it's the seeds we generally want.

Potato / Tomato Family

The Potato/ Tomato family is perhaps the most unusual of all the vegetable families represented in Robbins Farm Garden. On the one hand, it contains some of the most popular veggies in the world: potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers. On the other, it also contains one of the most addictive plants in the world — tobacco, with its nicotine — and one of the most poisonous — belladonna, or deadly nightshade. These latter two are naturally not planted here in this garden.

The five members of this family planted here include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and chili peppers. All of these got their start in South America, except for eggplant, which made its beginnings in India. Well-known members of the family not present in the garden (besides tobacco and belladonna) include tomatillos, a green tomato-like plant popular in Mexican food, and petunias, the flower.

Though their edible parts could not be more different, potatoes and tomatoes are, within the family, so closely related to one another that it's possible to crossbreed them, something like how horses and donkeys are crossbred to produce mules. What you get from crossbreeding the two is a plant that bears tomatoes aboveground and potatoes belowground. Unfortunately, however, the tomatoes end up tasting pretty crumby. Same with the potatoes: crumby. Who wants crumby tomatoes and crumby pototes? So hardly anyone tries to grow such a plant in their own gardens.

Mint Family

The Mint family is a huge family. It has almost 7,000 varieties, mostly small plants to medium-sized plants, whose primary use is to add interesting flavors and aromas to the foods we eat.

The two members of the mint family represented here in this garden are rosemary and basil. Other well-known members of the family not represented here include oregano, thyme, marjoram, sage, and many different varieties of mint itself, including peppermint, spearmint, and chocolate mint.

When people decide they would like to try their hand at a little gardening, they sometimes start with a small herb garden on a sunny windowsill in their kitchen. The first plants they'll start with will often include members of the Mint family.