The species are arranged according to the family they belong to, with those that are most abundant first. These include plants of the European flora alongside others of various origins, chosen to illustrate the morphological variability, compare the reproductive structures and the type of growth.
The Asteraceae, once called Compositae, represent one of the largest families with about 25,000 species spread all over the world. They are herbaceous or shrubby, but in the Tropics you can find the arboreal and climbing ones. A typical feature of the family is the inflorescence (flower head) made up of many flowers that, when in full bloom, turn into dried fruit called achenes. At the Brera Botanical Garden there are several genera that are important for different reasons: they include medicinal plants, such as grindelia (Grindelia robusta) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), food plants (wild artichoke, Jerusalem artichoke, etc.) and ornamental plants (dahlias, asters, etc. ).
The Lamiaceae family includes species widespread particularly in warm, temperate regions. The corolla of the flowers has 5 petals joined together, creating a shape resembling two lips. This is why the family was previously called Labiatae (from the Latin “labium”, meaning lip). The stem generally has a quadrangular section and is covered, like the leaves and flowers, by numerous glands containing essential oils used for food, medicinal or cosmetic purposes. Various genera are cultivated in the Brera Botanical Garden, some of which are well known and widely used (eg Salvia, Mentha, Lavandula, Origanum, Thymus).
The Apiaceae or Umbelliferae are easily identifiable as a family thanks to the type of inflorescence which is almost always a simple or compound umbel. They are scattered over a wide variety of habitats, mostly in the temperate regions of the boreal hemisphere. Some examples can be found in the Garden: many are used for flavouring several dishes, such as mountain celery (Levisticum officinale). Others are ornamental, such as the genus Eryngium, while others are poisonous, such as hemlock (Conium maculatum) and ferula (Ferula communis).
The Rosaceae family is widespread mainly in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and has many species with a very noticable morphological variability. Nevertheless they share a common characteristic, namely the flower has five petals and five sepals. In the Garden you can find species of mainly medicinal use like lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) or hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), but we have introduced particular specimens of the genus Rosa, too, such as the recently born Rosa ‘Brera’. In 2017 the latter became symbol of Brera Palace.
The Malvaceae are distributed in temperate, warm regions around the world. They often have spectacular flowers, with 5 petals sometimes joined together at the base. They might be herbaceous, shrubby but also arboreal as is the case of the parasol tree (Firmiana simplex). The example in the Garden is much admired not so much for its small, inconspicuous flowers, but for its peculiar green bark and huge leaves. You can also find plants that are useful to humans such as cotton or mallow, or ornamental plants such as various species of Hibiscus.
The Brassicaceae, or Cruciferae – its name derives from the shape of the 4-petalled flower reminiscent of a cross – are herbaceous plants present in every continent. Still it is in the Mediterranean area that their biodiversity is highest. The species which are edible have often been selected by humans to produce various cultivars, in particular for the genus Brassica (cabbage, cauliflower …). You can find examples in the Botanical Garden along with ornamental species such as the Pope’s coins (Lunaria annua) and others such as Isatis tinctoria, used to extract a blue dye for fabrics.
The Boraginaceae, mostly herbaceous, are present in temperate, subtropical areas. They have stem, leaves and inflorescence covered with bristly hair. The petals are often blue, changing to violet red after fertilization, a signal for pollinating insects of the loss of pollen and nectar. Borage (Borago officinalis), viper grass (Echium vulgare) or lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), cultivated in the Garden, are among the most common of our flora. Some ornamental cultivars are also collected such as Echium pininana ‘Blue Steeple’ whose large inflorescence full of small blue flowers is truly amazing.
Most of the Solanaceae are herbaceous or shrubby, hailing from tropical, temperate areas. Many are very valuable as food plants (potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes belong to the largest genus Solanum) and medicinal plants, like belladonna (Atropa bella-donna), datura (Datura stramonium) or false alchechengi (Whitania somnifera) which can be found in the Garden together with some species of Nicotiana such as the well-known tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum).
The Poaceae are herbaceous monocotyledons widespread in all environments, especially in the fields. The particular inflorescence, a hallmark of the family, is known as panicle. The inconspicuous and odorless flowers do not attract insects, therefore pollination is left to the wind. Some species represent the most important food source in the world, namely the so-called cereals such as rice, corn, wheat, barley, rye, oats … of which the Garden displays a small selection every year. Other genera of the family are collected, with representatives of Italian flora, too, such as Sesleria pichiana.
The Cyperaceae, like the Juncaceae, are herbaceous monocotyledons that may be taken for Poaceae. They are identifiable by their characteristic inflorescence. Cyperaceae thrive on moist substrates, sometimes with their roots submerged in water as is the case of the best known species, the papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). The Botanical Garden boasts some examples of the genus Carex, the most common species of our flora. The Juncaceae, living in humid environments too, are present in the Garden as species of Luzula and Juncus. These are listed among the Italian flora as Luzula nivea and Juncus effusus, namely the common rush, traditionally used to make baskets.