Classifications of Plant Origin

Classifications of Plant Origin

In this post, I will talk about some of the different definitions or classifications of the medicinal plants I work with and you will see these terms used throughout my website.  I will use the simplest definitions I can, but ones that are still technically accurate. I would encourage you to refer back to this page as often as you need to become familiar with this terminology.

Florida has an enormous array of native and introduced plants, flourishing here because the five-hundred mile-long state spans 4 different growing zones, and has a warm climate, long growing season, abundant rainfall and vast habitat diversity.  You will be surprised just how many medicinal remedies are growing throughout Florida and right in your own yard! (I cringe every time the lawn guys come)! Unfortunately, many medicinal plants won’t grow in Florida because they require higher elevations or freezing temperatures, but I try to do the best with what Mother Nature provides for us here in The Sunshine State.

Due to these varied factors and more than 400 years of human habitation, plants found growing in Florida today have a wide range of origins. In order to correctly grow, use and manage these thousands of plant species, it is sometimes important to know how these plants are defined or classified. The following definitions are for the terms most commonly used by herbologists and horticulturalists when referring to medicinal plants.


Definitions for words commonly used in plant medicine

  • Florida “native” plants:  plant species that were growing in Florida PRIOR to European contact (after 1700 A.D.).  Another word you will sometimes see being used interchangeably with native is “indigenous”, which means belonging to a particular place (in this case, Florida). An example of a medicinal native species is our Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).
  • “Exotic” plant species: those plant species that are not native to Florida, and that have become established here after 1700. An example of a medicinal exotic species isGotu Kola (Centellaasiatica).
  • “Invasive” plants:  The definition as it pertains to plants is “to spread widely and often uncontrollably”; another word sometimes used for this is a “weed”. There are two types of invasive plants:  invasive native species and invasive exotic or non-native species.

– Examples of “invasive native species” is the Cattail (Typha) or the native Primrose Willow (Ludwigia) which have flourished excessively in certain wetland ecosystems, choking out other natives.

– “Invasive exotic species” are plants that are not native to Florida but have made their way into the state through various means, then proceeded to “invade” the landscape.  Some examples of invasive exotics are Caesar’s Weed (Urena lobata) and Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) – however, these two species, although invasive and exotic, are both highly medicinal.

  • A “noxious” plant (often referred to as a noxious weed) is a plant that is harmful to the environment, wildlife, livestock or humans.  A noxious plant designation is usually made by the county or state agencies like the Florida Department of Agriculture, who also regulate the use and management of these species. Because noxious plants are inherently harmful, few if any are used for medicinal purposes.  Kudzu (Pueraria montana), however, is one of these exceptions recently gaining a lot of attention as a holistic treatment for addiction.
  • A “wild” plant species is more of a horticultural term, and it refers to species that are un-altered by humans (e.g., not bred or hybridized). Most medicinal plants are wild, but there are those that have been overbred and genetically altered. For example, Calendula officinalis is NOT wild (this species has been bred for flower gardens), but it is still medicinal. Calendula arvensis is a wild species and it is also medicinal. So just because a species isn’t wild doesn’t mean it isn’t medicinal.
  • “Florida-Introduced” are plant species that are not native to Florida but grow well here, so they are technically exotic, but are generally not invasive or harmful – they are simply categorized as “introduced”. Most of the common herbs that you grow in your garden and use in the kitchen fall into this category. For example, many species of Echinacea are not native to Florida but can be easily grown here, and they are not noxious or invasive – in fact they are prized for their medicinal purposes. Naturally, there are many herbs that cannot grow in Florida, therefore they cannot be classified as Florida-Introduced, for example, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) requires high altitude, rocky soil, and freezing temperatures, cannot be classified in this section (I cannot grow this, I have tried many times, therefore I will not use it in my products).

This is by no means a full list of how to classify or define plant types, but this is how I will define MY plants that I use and write about.  For more information view Florida Native Plant Society and the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants of UF, two of my favorite sites!!