Herb Basics: A Brief Lesson in Botany

A quick overview of botany to help you understand the basics

| May/June 1999

In the world of herbal medicine, distinguishing between various plant parts is important. Here’s a quick overview of botany to help you understand terms commonly used on labels, in books, and in the bulk aisles of your local health-food store.

• Herbs have four basic parts: the root, the stem, the leaf, and the flower or fruit (in most cases, the flower is the part that becomes the fruit). The aerial parts are those aboveground: the stem, leaves, flowers, and fruits.

• Roots take different shapes depending on whether they need to hold reserves over the winter or during a dormant period. Taproots dig deep to bring up minerals and nutrients, while shallow, moplike roots serve as a solid base for top-heavy plants.

• The stem supports the plant and transports nutrients from the roots to the leaves and flowers. A rhizome is considered to be a root by many, but it is actually a modified stem designed to store food reserves for the plant’s future use. Rhizomes usually lie just under the surface of the soil.

• In most green, flowering plants, the leaf is the structure where photosynthesis occurs. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy that creates chemical compounds.

• Some plants are self-pollinating, meaning that they have flowers with both male components (stamens) and female components (pistils). Other plants have separate male and female flowers and are cross-pollinated by outside sources, such as bees, birds, wind, and water. The reproduction of some plants can be controlled by separating the genders. The ginkgo tree, for example, is usually sold only as a female in this country, without the males necessary to ensure the production of fruit, which has an offensive smell.

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