Updated: Feb 19, 2022
Plants are one of six big groups (kingdoms) of living things. They are autotrophic eukaryotes, which means they have complex cells, and make their own food. Usually they cannot move (not counting growth)
Green leaves and yellow flowers of a daffodil plant. A picture of a Grassy grass plant
Plants include familiar types such as trees, herbs, bushes, grasses, ferns, mosses, and green algae. The scientific study of plants, known as botany, has identified about 350,000 extant (living) species of plants. Fungi and non-green algae are not classified as plants.
Most plants grow in the ground, with stems in the air and roots below the surface. Some float on water. The root part absorbs water and some nutrients the plant needs to live and grow. These climb the stem and reach the leaves. The evaporation of water from pores in the leaves pulls water through the plant. This is called transpiration.
Flowers and pollination
Flowers are the reproductive organ only of flowering plants (Angiosperms). The petals of a flower are often brightly colored and scented to attract insects and other pollinators. The stamen is the male part of the plant. It is composed of the filament (a stalk) that holds the anther, which produces the pollen. Pollen is needed for plants to produce seeds. The carpel is the female part of the flower. The top part of the carpel contains the stigma. The style is the neck of the carpel. The ovary is the swollen area at the bottom of the carpel. The ovary produces the seeds. The sepal is a leaf that protects a flower as a bud.
The process by which pollen gets transferred from one flower to another flower is called pollination. This transfer can happen in different ways. Insects such as bees are attracted to bright, scented flowers. When bees go into the flower to gather nectar, the spiky pollen sticks to their back legs. The sticky stigma on another flower catches the pollen when the bee lands or flies nearby it.
Some flowers use the wind to carry pollen. Their dangling stamens produce lots of pollen that is light enough to be carried by the wind. Their flowers are usually small and not highly coloured. The stigmas of these flowers are feathery and hang outside the flower to catch the pollen as it falls.
A plant produces many spores or seeds. Lower plants such as moss and ferns produce spores. The seed plants are the Gymnospermsand Angiosperms. If all the seeds fell to the ground besides the plant, the area might become overcrowded. There might not be enough water and minerals for all the seeds. Seeds usually have some way to get to new places. Some seeds can be dispersed by the wind or by water. Seeds inside juicy fruits are dispersed after being eaten. Sometimes, seeds stick to animals and are dispersed that way.
Phylogenetic plant tree, showing the major clades and traditional groups. Monophyleticgroups are in black and paraphyletics in blue. Diagram according to symbiogenetic origin of plant cells, and phylogeny of algae,bryophytes, vascular plants,
and flowering plants.
The question of the earliest plant fossils depends on what is meant by the word "plant".
If by plants we mean phototrophs using chlorophyll, then cyanobacteria in stromatolites are the first fossils, 3,450 million years ago (mya) in the Archaean eon. The remarkable precision is possible because the fossils were sandwiched between lava flows that could be precisely dated from embedded zircon crystals.
If by plants we include all types of algae, then the earliest known red algae lived 1.6 billion years ago. Fossils of them were recently found in India.
If by plants we mean green plants, Viridiplantae, then the first fossils are green algae. This is probably the majority position amongst professional botanists. There is convincing evidence for the monophyly of charophyte green algae and embryophytes. There are still two choices:
Acritarchs (a group of organic-walled microfossils) may be reproductive cysts of green algae. If so, they are present in the Neoproterozoic era, 1000 mya.
Otherwise, there is a large increase in planktonic algae around 540 mya in the Cambrian period.
If by plants we mean land plants, the first fossils are in the Silurian.
By the Silurian, fossils of whole plants are preserved, including the lycophyteBaragwanathia. From the Devonian, detailed fossils of rhyniophytes have been found. Early fossils of these ancient plants show the individual cells within the plant tissue. The Devonian period also saw the evolution of the first tree in the fossil record, Wattezia. This fern-like tree had a trunk with fronds, and produced spores.
The coal measures are a major source of Palaeozoic plant fossils, with many groups of plants in existence at this time. The spoil heaps of coal mines are the best places to collect; coal itself is the remains of fossilised plants, though structural detail of the plant fossils is rarely visible in coal. In the Fossil Forest at Victoria Park in Glasgow the stumps of Lepidodendron trees are found in their original growth positions.