The Board

One of the best classes I took as an undergraduate was Plant Taxonomy. Not just because I drool over the topic, but because the professor, Dr. Robin Kennedy, taught it with great enthusiasm. She also developed a wonderful structure for the class; lab and lecture. Our exams were a mix of live and pressed plant specimens that we had to identify by their visible characters. We were also given lists of characters to which we had to match families. For example, what family has tetradynamous stamens? Why, Brassicaceae, of course. We covered over 60 families of vascular plants over the semester and the mental organization of information for all these families, their characters, associated terminology and their floral formulae was mind melting. However, we were given a tool.

In the first lab session we were handed a manila file folder which we placed on a light board and upon it we traced a series of rows and columns. Each column was given a heading like “United Carpels” or “Zygomorphic”. As the weeks passed and we learned what these terms meant, we added each new family to its corresponding column by copying the information off a large blackboard at the corner of the room. It was called “The Board”.

I spent hours memorizing The Board, or at least my copy of it. When lab exams began, I would quickly draw it on the back of my exam and write in all the families. Years later, I occasionally whip out The Board for a quick refresher. I relearn such fun facts as Solanaceae has a superior ovary and Malvaceae has monodelphous stamens. Then I fold it up and stuff it back into my plant tax book.

I ran across The Board the other day. I hadn’t reviewed it for quite a while and I was embarrassed by how little plant family trivia I could recall. I decided to breathe new life into The Board by typing it into a spreadsheet and posting it on my office wall. As I once again added each family to the rows and columns I decided it would be fun to add more families of angiosperms. That done and still enjoying the process, I turned to the fern families which have always troubled me since I never had to learn them. So I added them too. After several sessions and more hours than I care to admit The Board seemed to have reached its full potential. I liked the finished product so much that I thought I would share it. Here it is (click photo to enlarge):

Here’s how it works. First, everything in the black-lined corner on the bottom left is a non-angiosperm family or a monocot. The rest are dicot angiosperms. To derive at a single family, start at the top and follow the appropriate column until you reach a list of families. Then you need to examine the list for characters that best fit the plant you may be identifying.

Besides identifying plants to family, The Board is an easy way to learn or reinforce the characters of the major plant families. In terms of geographic range, the board is based on Midwestern plant families but should work anywhere east of the Rockies and north of the southern coastal plain. If a family has greater than two genera or seven species I added it to the board. I also added some families that have few genera but several species, such as Clusiaceae, and families that are small but relatively common such as Lythraceae.

Admittedly, the board has shortcomings. Some of the families are oversimplified. Only the more prominent characters for each family are listed. And not every family is listed. But overall, it represents more information than is floating around in the heads of 99% of folks that call themselves botanists, so I feel it is at least justified as a teaching tool. In fact, it will be added to the training material that the Institute of Botanical Training provides for its students.

If you would like your own copy of The Board, you can save or print off the jpeg above. However, this will result in a low resolution copy. If you would like a clean and crisp copy I have saved a pdf version at Here is the link:

Lastly, The Board is a work in progress. If you have suggestions for additions, subtractions or good old fashioned edits, please let me know. Updating the families to reflect the work of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group is not an option, so don’t bother suggesting it. For better or worse, the families of their treatment lack cohesive morphological distinctions and would be a mess. Otherwise, enjoy!


  1. Brilliant. Thanks, Justin. This will be a great tool and something to study over the winter.

  2. How wonderfully OCD :)

    This gives me an idea for genera of longhorned beetles and jewel beetles.

  3. Awesome, Justin! Since I was originally a history major, I never took Plant tax, and have been largely self taught. Needless to say, that leaves me with large gaps in my knowledge. I will study the board with glee! And I will be seeing Robin Kennedy on Saturday... I'll be sure to tell her how much she inspired you!

  4. My friend, you have certainly outdone yourself this time. Upon seeing The Board, I immediately printed two 2'x3' copies... one for my office at work and one for my office at home.

    I have notes on my plant taxonomy course, taught by Hardy Eshbaugh, in a folder at work, I believe. I had the family name (latin and english) on one side of a notecard, and characters for that family on the other side. At some point, I will go through these notecards and compare them to The Board. If I find anything worth adding, I will let you know.

    Nice work!

  5. Thanks, everyone! I'm glad The Board is being enjoyed. It would be fun to apply the structure to some large complex genus like Carex, Aster or Solidago. Sounds like fun winter work for your truly.

  6. Thanks Justin. I, too, printed a large format copy for the wall of the SFRP Herbarium. Now, to apply "The Board" to Southern flora.

  7. You're welcome, Sabatia. If you want to add families, I'd be happy to send you an editable word doc. All the best!

  8. Justin, that would be great. The large format did not print well, but still useful nonetheless. BTW - did you find any other cool things at the C. woodii site? I'd like to get a specimen if there is enough material, as well as C. wildenowii, jamesii, and timida. And perhaps that new Dirca, which appears to be fairly well distributed as folks begin to know what to look for.

  9. There is C. timida, C. communis and C. laxiculmis v. copulata. Just over the hill by Noblett Lake there is more C. laxiculmis and C. laxiflora. Beside sedges there are some neat plants like Tradescantia ernestiana, Euonymous obovatus and other species more typical of eastern forests. What a place!

  10. The large format didn't print well. Would it be possible to get .xls file or a pdf?

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Yeah, I should have read the entire post before making a bonehead comment on a public website. Anyway, I love The Board. Thanks for your work!

  13. The link wasn't very visable. Think nothing of it. I'm just happy you are enjoying The Board.


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