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This is probably the largest family of flowering plants, with more than 25 000 species world-wide, growing from sea-level to the highest mountain peaks. It is absent only from Antarctica. In southern Africa it is also one of the biggest families of flowering plants with about 246 genera and 2 300 species. They show remarkable variation in growth form and general morphology because they occur in so many different localities and habitats. Asteraceae is taxonomically classified as follows:
Kingdom – Plantae
Clade – Tracheobionta (vascular)
Superdivision – Spermatophyta (Seed)
Division – Angiosperms (Flowering)
Class – Dicotyledons
Sub-class – Asteridae
Order – Asterales
Family Asteraceae

In South Africa Asteraceae is divided into three subfamilies (Asteroideae, Cichoriodaeae & Carduoideae) and a number of tribes. In the National Herbarium, Pretoria, we accept 18 tribes.

The name Asteraceae comes from the type genus Aster, from the Ancient Greek ἀστήρ, meaning star, and refers to the star-like form of the inflorescence. The alternative family name Compositae is derived from the Latin word compositus which means ‘made up of parts united in one common whole’.

Members of the Asteraceae are mostly herbaceous plants, but some shrubs, climbers and trees (such as Lachanodes arborea) do exist. They are generally easy to distinguish from other plants, mainly because of their characteristic inflorescence (flower).

In plants of the family Asteraceae, what appears to be a single flower is actually a cluster of much smaller flowers. The overall appearance of the cluster, as a single flower, functions in attracting pollinators in the same way as the structure of an individual flower in some other plant families.

The economic value of the representatives of this family can be divided into various categories: food for man and beast, poisonous, weeds, medicinal, wood, garden plants and cut flowers.

Food for man: The most well known food product of the family is certainly sunflower oil and kernels. Other well-known foods are Jerusalem and French artichokes, lettuce, chicory and herbal tea like camomile.

Food for animals:species of this family grow in so many habitats and localities, many of them are good grazing for stock e.g. sandbietou or tickberry (Chrysanthemoides monilifera subsp. pisifera), blouheuningkaroo (Felicia muricata), witheuningkaroo (Phymaspermum parvifolium) and bierbos (Pteronia membranacea).

Poisonous species: There are, however, many species that are poisonous to stock e.g. vermeerbos (Geigeria species), kaalsiektebos (Chrysocoma ciliata) and bloubietou (Dimorphotheca spectabilis).

Weeds: The fruits (cypselas) with their hair or scale-like pappus are easily distributed by the wind. Therefore many species have become weeds and some are distributed world-wide. Well-known weeds are dandelions (Taraxacum species), cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), blackjack (Bidens species) and burweed or boetebossie (Xanthium spinosum).

Medicinal: Many species have traditionally been used medicinally as they are so easily obtainable. Many of the medicinal plants belong to the tribe Anthemideae, whose representatives are often aromatic. Well-known medicinal plants are wilde-als or African wormwood (Artemisia afra), kapokbos or wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) and wild camphor bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus).

Wood: In southern Africa, representatives of only six genera are classified as trees, but the wood of only two genera, wild silver oaks (Brachylaena species) and wild camphor trees (Tarchonanthus species), have been reported as being used for building huts, fence posts, handles of utensils and turnery.