Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Botany, The Seven Most Common Families of Plants, Lesson 1: The Mint Family and Leaves

Square Stalks and opposite leaves, often aromatic.

We began our quest to study the seven most common families of plants using Thomas Elpel's Botany in a Day. (You can find a page about the mint family here at Elpel's website.)The idea is that if you can learn the characteristics of these seven families, you can then identify which family the vast majority of plants belong, and then you can look them up in field guides that have plants listed by families much more easily and accurately.
mint nature study, May 2008
Mint is most easily identified by its square stalks and opposite leaves, and that if you crush a leaf it is often aromatic. Nearly half of the spices in your kitchen come from this one family, including basil, rosemary, lavender, germander, thyme, savory, horehound, sage and mints such as spearmint and peppermint. 

How can knowing plant families help you with plant identification?

We gathered what plants we had in the yard that fit the description of the mint family -a variety of mints, bee balm and a weed, which we did not know, and we set to the task of drawing pictures of them, making sure we included the most important features of the family.

The real use of learning the families of plants came to use right away. Some Field Guides list plants by families, in which the use of knowing the families is obvious. But even if the Field Guide you are using does not list the plants by family, knowing the possible family is helpful in sorting out the identification. We quickly found the identity of the unidentified weed we had found in our backyard as Purple Dead Nettle (purpureum), and it was indeed listed as belonging to the mint family.


Some Additional Fun: Mint Ice Cream


What better thing to make out of fresh mint than homemade from scratch ice cream?

2 bunches fresh mint
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
6 large egg yolks
4 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Combine the mint, milk, sugar, cream and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes. 

Strain the milk mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl, pressing to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Discard the mint. Return the milk mixture to the saucepan and place over medium-low heat.
Set the sieve over a medium bowl in a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly add 1 cup of the warm milk mixture to the egg yolks, whisking constantly, until combined. Return to the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to a custard and coats the back of a spoon, 10-12 minutes.
Remove the custard from heat and strain. Let sit at least 3 hours and up to overnight, until slightly cool.
Transfer the custard to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Fold in the chocolate. Transfer the ice cream to an airtight container and freeze at least 4 hours, until firm.


There are so many things to look at in terms of leaf identification. Part of the description of the mint family was that the members of this family have opposite leaves, so it seemed like a good time to learn about the terms used in leaf identification. I had them gather a variety of leaves from the yard to look at the differences in their shapes; margins, or outside edges; and their leaf arrangement. As you can see from the chart below, there are lots of things you can look for when looking at plant leaves. 

In order to preserve our leaves so that we could include them in our botany books we are making, we made these simple little leaf presses.

These are simple to make and lightweight to carry. We followed the directions at Handbook of Nature Study.
All the materials you need to make a simple plant press.
 All you need for these presses is two pieces of cardboard the same size and some copy paper cut or folded to be the same size as the cardboard. Layer the cardboard on the outside of the sandwich and the copy paper is folded inside.
Rubber-bands keep the press together and tight so that the plants will press.


  1. I'm not sure you ever do anything that I don't LOVE - this is just great!

    1. You are too sweet! I feel the same way about the stuff you do.

  2. Oh botany, my great weakness. Can I just sit in your family room and you can teach me all the stuff I never seem to get about plants?

    1. Or, you could just follow along our studies through the posts. :) My husband always said that he was really bad at it too, but he had gotten much better over the years. It requires attention to detail, which is hard for ADHD types, but it can be done with repetition.

  3. I'm showing your post to T on Monday, I just know he would love to make the mint icecream - it looks too yummy!

  4. We have banana mint in our garden - I wonder what that might taste like as ice cream! Your botany lessons sound wonderful, your children are quite lucky to be exposed to so many different subject areas.


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