What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part two

“Organisms green with chlorophyll appeared pretty early in Earth history, diversified, and adapted to oceanic, coastal, and finally terrestrial environments. As this took place, the Earth turned green.” – Joseph E. Armstrong, How the Earth Turned Green

world turned green

The Earth not only turned green, but the composition of its atmosphere dramatically shifted. Thanks in part to photosynthesis, Earth’s atmosphere went from having virtually no free oxygen to being composed of about 21% oxygen. The increasing availability of oxygen helped facilitate the evolution of more and more diverse forms of life. Had photosynthesis (specifically oxygen-producing photosynthesis) never come about, the Earth would not be anything like it is today.

There are organisms in at least three taxonomic kingdoms that have the ability to photosynthesize: Bacteria, Protista, and Plantae. A book itself could be written about how photosynthesis developed and how it differs among organisms. The important thing to note in a discussion about plants is that the type of photosynthesis that occurs in cyanobacteria is the same type that occurs in the chloroplasts of plants and green algae. Additionally, pigments called chlorophyll are only found in cyanobacteria and the chloroplasts of plants and green algae. As Joseph Armstrong puts it in How the Earth Turned Green, “evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that chloroplasts were free-living photosynthetic bacteria that became cellular slaves within a host cell.”

In Part One, we established that green algae are closely related to plants, and that a subset of green algae colonized the land and evolved into modern day plants. Plants are green because of cyanobacteria via green algae; however, cyanobacteria are not plants, and green algae may or may not be plants depending on your preference. Classification is not nearly as important as determining evolutionary relationships.

So, again, what is a plant? K. J. Willis and J. C. McElwain offer this summary in their book, The Evolution of Plants: “Plants are relatively simple organisms with a common list of basic needs (water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, some trace elements, plus various biochemical pathways necessary for photosynthesis). This list has remained almost unchanged from the first land plants to the present.” In Part One, we also listed three major features that all plants have in common: multicellularity, cell walls that contain cellulose, and the ability to photosynthesize.

Photosynthesis is a big one, because it means that plants make their own food. They are autotrophs/self-feeders/ producers. This sets them apart from heterotrophs, organisms that consume other organisms in order to obtain energy and other essential nutrients. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, providing energy and nutrients to all other organisms that either directly or indirectly consume them. In Armstrong’s words:

“Eating and being eaten is a fact of life, a process by which the light energy captured by green organisms is passed through a series of consumers, a food chain, before eventually being lost as heat, which dissipates. Everything else is recycled with the able assistance of decomposers, primarily fungi and microorganisms, heterotrophs who obtain their food from dead organisms or their metabolic wastes. A large part of ecology concerns such trophic or feeding interactions, the energy transfers that result, and the cycling of biogeochemicals, the elements of life.”

Their ability to photosynthesize, among other things, gives plants a prominent role in the world’s ecosystems. Much more will be said about that as we continue, but first there are a few other things about plants worth mentioning.

Plants exhibit modular growth. While animals generally produce all of their body parts early on in life and rarely reproduce new body parts in replacement of lost ones, plants can continue to reproduce and replace body parts. Even at maturity, plants maintain embryonic tissues, which allows them to regenerate body parts as needed. This is one reason why so many plants can be propagated asexually via stem, root, and/or leaf cuttings. Roots can be encouraged to grow from unlikely places, and a whole new plant can be produced as a result.

Plants are generally stationary. Rooted in place, they must obtain everything necessary for life, growth, and reproduction by accessing whatever resources are in their immediate vicinity. Roots search the soil for water and other nutrients, and leaves harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars. Relationships are maintained with soil fungi to aid in the search for water and nutrients, but otherwise, plants are largely on their own. Since they cannot run or hide, they must stand and fend for themselves when insects and other herbivores come to devour them. They have adapted a variety of chemical and physical defenses to address this.

Despite being largely immobile during their juvenile and adult phases, plants can actually be incredibly mobile during their embryonic stage (or in other words, as seeds/spores/progules). Employing biotic and abiotic resources, seeds and spores can potentially move miles away from their parent plants, enjoying a freedom of movement they will never know again once they put their roots down.

It is estimated that the total number of plant species on the earth today is around 400,000. (For reference, see this BGCI page and this Kew Gardens page. See The Plant List for up to date plant species names.) The first land plants evolved around 450 million years ago. It wasn’t until around 160 million years ago that the first flowering plants appeared, yet about 90% of the plants in existence today fall within this group. How many tens of thousands of species of plants have existed on Earth throughout history? I don’t think we can say. So many have come and gone, while others have radiated into new species. Exploring life that currently exists on this planet is an enormous pursuit on its own; add to that the exploration of life that once existed, and your pursuits become endless.

Sticky purple geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) one species of around species of extant flowering plants.

Sticky purple geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) is just one of more than 350,000 species of extant flowering plants.

At the close of the first chapter of his book, Armstrong highlights eight major historical events that have brought us plants as we know them today: “the origin of life itself, the development of chlorophyll and photosynthesis, the advent of the eukaryotic (nucleated) cell, the development of multicellular organisms, the invasion of land, the development of vascular tissues, the development of seeds, and the development of flowers.”  Consider that a brief synopsis of all we have to cover as we continue to tell the story of plants.

What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part one

I want to tell the story of plants. In order to do that, I suppose I will need to research the 4 billion year history of life on earth. And so I am. Apart from satiating my own curiosity, studying and telling the story of plants advances me towards my goal of creating a series of botany lesson themed posts. Botany 101 and beyond, if you will. An ambitious project, perhaps, but what else am I going to do with my time?

So what is a plant anyway? We all know plants when we see them, but have you ever tried to define them? They are living beings, but they are not animals. They are stationary – rooted in the ground, usually. Most of them are green, but not all of them. They photosynthesize, which means they use water, carbon dioxide collected from the atmosphere, and energy harvested from the sun to make food for themselves. No animal can do that (okay…a few sort of can). They reproduce sexually, but many can also reproduce asexually. They are incredibly diverse. Some grow hundreds of feet into the air. Some barely reach more than a few centimeters off the ground at maturity. They have discernible parts and pieces, but they can also lose parts and pieces and then grow them back. There aren’t many animals that can do that. They have been on this planet for hundreds of millions of years, colonizing land millions of years before animals. Plants helped pave the way, and if it weren’t for plants, animals may not have stood a chance.

I don’t mean to pick on animals, it’s just that for a long time, humans grouped living things into just two kingdoms: Plantae and Animalia. Stationary things that appeared to be rooted to the ground or some other surface were classified as plants. Green things that lived in the water were also considered plants. Thus, lichens, fungi, algae, and everything we consider to be a plant today were placed in kingdom Plantae. Everything else was placed in kingdom Animalia. This, of course, was before much was known about microorganisms.

Dichotomous classification was reconsidered as we learned more about the diversity of organisms in each kingdom, particularly as the theory of evolution came into play and microscopes allowed us to observe single celled organisms and chromosomes. Eventually, fungi was awarded its own kingdom, which includes lichens – organisms composed of both fungi and photosynthetic species but classified according to their fungal components. Most of the algae was placed in a kingdom called Protista, a hodgepodge group of unicellular and unicellular-colonial organisms, some of which are animal-like and some of which are plant-like. Two kingdoms were also formed for prokaryotic organisms (organisms with cells that lack membrane bound organelles): Bacteria and Archaea.

Illustration of one current itteration of kingdom classification system (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

Taxonomic kingdoms as we currently consider them (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

In short, the answer to what is a plant seems to be whatever organisms humans decide to put in kingdom Plantae. One problem with this answer is that some chose to include certain species of algae and others don’t. But why is that? It has to do with how plants evolved and became photosynthetic in the first place.

Microorganisms developed the ability to photosynthesize around 3.5 billion years ago; however, the photosynthetic process that plants use today appeared much later – around 2.7 billion years ago. It evolved in an organism called cyanobacteria – a prokaryote. Eukaryotic organisms were formed when one single cell organism was taken inside another single cell organism, a process known as symbiogenesis. In this case, cyanobacteria was taken up and the eukaryotic organisms known today as algae were formed. The incorporated cyanobacteria became known as chloroplasts.

Not all algae species went on to evolve into plants. A group known as green algae appears to be the most closely related to plants, and a certain subset of green algae colonized the land and evolved into modern day plants (also known as land plants). That is why some taxonomists choose to include green algae in the plant kingdom, excluding all other types of algae.

Common stonewort (Chara vulgaris, a species of green algae (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Common stonewort, Chara vulgaris, a species of green algae (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The term land plants refers to liverworts, hornworts, mosses, ferns, fern allies, gymnosperms, and flowering plants – or in other words, all vascular and non-vascular plants. Another all encompassing term for this large group of organisms is embryophytes (embryo-producing plants).

Still confused about what a plant is? Three main features can be attributed to all plants: 1. They are multicellular organisms. 2. Their cell structure includes a cell wall composed of cellulose 3. They are capable of photosynthesis. Many species of green algae are unicellular, which is an argument for leaving them out of kingdom Plantae. Certain parasitic plants like toothwort, dodder, and beech drops have lost all or most of their chlorophyll and no longer photosynthesize, but they are still plants.

Deciding what is and isn’t a plant ultimately comes down to evolutionary history and common ancestry. As Joseph Armstrong writes in his book, How the Earth Turned Green, “Our classifications of human artifacts are totally arbitrary, but to be useful scientifically our classification of life must accurately reflect groupings that resulted from real historical events, common ancestries.”

Obviously this is going to be a multi-part series, so I will have much more to tell you about plants in part two, etc. For now, this You Tube video offers a decent summary.

The Making of a Kill Jar

I often hear stories from plant lovers about their initial nonchalance concerning plants. The common refrain seems to be that they were fascinated by wildlife and largely ignored plant life until they came to the realization that plants were integral in the lives of animals and play a major role in shaping the environments that support all life. Such an epiphany spawns an insatiable obsession with botany, at least for some people.

I seem to be on the opposite trajectory. It’s not like I have ever really been disinterested in animals; I’ve just been significantly more interested in plants and haven’t bothered to learn much about the animal kingdom (with the exception of entomology). My growing fascination with pollination biology (see last year’s Year of Pollination series) isn’t much of a stretch because insects have always appealed to me, and their intimate interactions with plants are hard to ignore. Ultimately, it is my interest in urban ecology and wildlife friendly gardening that is driving me to learn more about animals.

I started this year off by finally reading Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy wrote a lot about birds in his book, which got me thinking more about them. I then discovered Welcome to Subirdia, a book by John Marzluff that explores the diversity of birds that live among us in our urban environments. I then found myself paying more attention to birds. Many bird species rely on insects for food at some point in their lives. Plants regularly interact with insects both in defending themselves against herbivory and in attracting insects to assist in pollination. It’s all connected, and it seems I wouldn’t be much of a botanist then if I didn’t also learn about all of the players involved in these complex interactions.

So, now I’m a birdwatcher and an insect collector. Or at least I’m learning to be. Insects are hard to learn much about without capturing them. They often move quickly, making them hard to identify, or they go completely unnoticed because they are tiny and so well hidden or camouflaged. With the help of a net and a kill jar, you can get a closer look. This not only allows you to determine the species of insects that surround you, but it can also help give you an idea of their relative abundances, their life cycles, where they live and what they feed on, etc.

insect net 2_bw

As the name implies, if you’re using a kill jar, your actions will result in the death of insects. Some people will be more pleased about this than others. If killing insects bothers you, don’t worry, insect populations are typically abundant enough that a few individuals sacrificed for science will not hurt the population in a serious way.

Kill jars can be purchased or they can be made very simply with a few easy to find materials. Start with a glass jar with a metal lid. Mix up a small amount of plaster of paris. Pour the wet plaster in the jar, filling it to about one inch. Allow the plaster to dry completely. This process can be sped up by placing the jar in an oven set on warm. When the plaster is dry, “charge” the jar by soaking the plaster with either ethyl acetate, nail polish remover, or rubbing alcohol. I use nail polish remover because it is cheap and easily accessible. It doesn’t work as quickly as pure ethyl acetate, but it is less toxic. Place a paper towel or something soft and dry in the jar. This keeps the insects from getting beaten up too much as they thrash about. Once the insect is dead, it can be easily observed with a hand lens or a dissecting microscope. It can also be pinned, labeled, and added to a collection.

There are several resources online that describe the process of collecting and preserving insects, including instructions for making an inexpensive kill jar, which is why I am keeping this brief and will instead refer you to a couple of such sites. Like this one from Purdue University’s extension program. It’s directed toward youth, but it includes great information for beginners of any age. This post by Dragonfly Woman is a great tutorial for making a kill jar, and there are several other posts on her blog that are very informative for insect collectors of all experience levels.

I guess you could consider this part of my journey of becoming a naturalist. Perhaps you are on a similar journey. If so, share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.

Field Trip: Utah State University Botanical Center

usu bc sign

Last month I was in Utah visiting family, so I took the opportunity to check out the Utah State University Botanical Center in Kaysville. Located along Interstate 15, it’s hard to miss, and yet I had never visited despite having driven past it numerous times. Of course, March is not the ideal time to visit a botanical garden in Utah. Spring was in the air, but the garden still had a lot of waking up to do. Regardless it was fun to check the place out and imagine what it might have to offer in its prime.

The vision of the USU Botanical Center is “to guide the conservation and wise use of plant, water, and energy resources through research-based educational experiences, demonstrations, and technologies.” Some of the demonstration gardens are located alongside a series of ponds that are stocked with fish and are home to wetland bird species and other wildlife.  Next door to the ponds is the Utah House, a demonstration house modeling energy efficient design and construction along with other sustainable practices. The landscaping surrounding the Utah House, apart from the vegetable garden, consists mainly of drought-tolerant plants.

Utah State University has recently acquired some neighboring land and is in the process of expanding their demonstration gardens and arboretum. I enjoyed my brief visit (particularly the time I spent watching the ducks) and will make it a point to stop again, both during a warmer time of year and as the gardens continue to expand.


The fruits of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)

Pinus heldreichii 'green bun'

Dwarf Bosnian Pine (Pinus heldreichii ‘Green Bun’)

Daphne x burkwoodii 'carol mackie'

Carol Mackie Daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’)

Amelanchier alnifolia leafing out

Saskatoon serviceberry leafing out (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Physocarpus opulifolius 'Dart's Gold'

Dart’s Gold Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’)

Aprium blossoms

Aprium blossoms – 75% apricot, 25% plum

green roof

Green roof on a shed near the Utah House


The wetlands at USU Botanical Center offer a great opportunity to teach the public about the importance of wetland habitat and wetland conservation. Signage informs visitors that despite the fact that wetlands and riparian areas only make up 1% of Utah, 80% of Utah’s wildlife use such areas at some point during their life. Learn more here.

What botanical gardens are you visiting this spring? Leave your travelogues and recommendations in the comments section below.