Ancient Plants – Conclusion


In the stupendous pageant of living things which moves through creation, the plants have a place unique and vitally important. Yet so quietly and so slowly do they live and move that we in our hasty motion often forget that they, equally with ourselves, belong to the living and evolving organisms. When we look at the relative structures of plants divided by long intervals of time we can recognize the progress they make; and this is what we do in the study of fossil botany. We can place the salient features of the flora of Palæozoic and Mesozoic eras in a few pages of print, and the contrast becomes surprising. But the actual distance in time between these two types of plants is immense, and must have extended over several million years; indeed to speak of years becomes meaningless, for the duration of the periods must have been so vast that they pass beyond our mental grasp. In these periods we find a contrast in the characters of the plants as striking as that in the characters of the animals. Whole families died out, and new ones arose of more complex and advanced organization. But in height and girth there is little difference between the earliest and the latest trees; there seems a limit to the possible size of plants on this planet, as there is to that of animals, the height of mountains, or the depth of the sea. The “higher plants” are often less massive and less in height than the lower:Man is less in stature than was the Dinosaur:and though by no legitimate stretch of the imagination can we speak of brain in plants, there is an unconscious superiority of adaptation by which the more highly organized plants capture the soil they dominate.

It has been noted in the previous chapters that so far back as the Coal Measure period the vegetative parts of plants were in many respects similar to those of the present, it was in the reproductive organs that the essential differences lay. Naturally, when a race (as all races do) depends for its very existence on the chain of individuals leading from generation to generation, the most important items in the plant structures must be those mechanisms concerned with reproduction. It is here that we see the most fundamental differences between living and fossil plants, between the higher and the lower of those now living, between the forest trees of the present and the forest trees of the past. The wood of the palæozoic Lycopods was in the quality and extent and origin of its secondary growth comparable with that of higher plants still living to-day:yet in the fruiting organs how vast is the contrast! The Lycopods, with simple cones composed of scales in whose huge sporangia were simple single-celled spores; the flowering plants, with male and female sharply contrasted yet growing in the same cone (one can legitimately compare a flower with a cone), surrounded by specially coloured and protective scales, and with the “spore” in the tissue of the young seed so modified and changed that it is only in a technical sense that comparison with the Lycopod spore is possible.

To study the minute details of fossil plants it is necessary to have an elaborate training in the structure of living ones. In the preceding chapters only the salient features have been considered, so that from them we can only glean a knowledge similar to the picture of a house by a Japanese artist:a thing of few lines.

Even from the facts brought together in these short chapters, however, it cannot fail to be evident how large a field fossil botany covers, and with how many subjects it comes in touch. From the minute details of plant anatomy and evolution pure and simple to the climate of departed continents, and from the determination of the geological age of a piece of rock by means of a blackened fern impression on it to the chemical questions of the preservative properties of sea water, all is a part of the study of “fossil botany”.

To bring together the main results of the study in a graphic form is not an easy task, but it is possible to construct a rough diagram giving some indication of the distribution of the chief groups of plants in the main periods of time.

Such a diagram can only represent the present state of our imperfect knowledge; any day discoveries may extend the line of any group up or down in the series, or may connect the groups together.

It becomes evident that so early as the Palæozoic there are nearly as many types represented as in the present day, and that in fact everything, up to the higher Gymnosperms, was well developed (for it is hard indeed to prove that Cordaites is less highly organized than some of the present Gymnosperm types), but flowering plants and also the true cycads are wanting, as well as the intermediate Mesozoic Bennettitales. The peculiar groups of the period were the Pteridosperm series, connecting links between fern and cycad, and the Sphenophyllums, connecting in some measure the Lycopods and Calamites. With them some of the still living groups of ferns, Lycopods, and Equisetaceæ were flourishing, though all the species differed from those now extant. This shows us how very far from the beginning our earliest information is, for already in the Palæozoic we have a flora as diversified as that now living, though with more primitive characters.


Fig. 122.:Diagram showing the relative distribution of the main groups of plants through the geological eras. The dotted lines connecting the groups and those in the pre-Carboniferous are entirely theoretical, and merely indicate the conclusions reached at present. The size of the surface of each group roughly indicates the part it played in the flora of each period. Those with dotted surface bore seeds, the others spores.

In Mesozoic times the most striking group is that of the Cycads and Bennettitales, the latter branch suggesting a direct connection between the fern-cycad series and the flowering plants. This view, so recently published and upheld by various eminent botanists, is fast gaining ground. Indeed, so popular has it become among the specialists that there is a danger of overlooking the real difficulties of the case. The morphological leap from the leaves and stems of cycads to those of the flowering plants seems a much more serious matter to presuppose than is at present recognized.

As is indicated in the diagram, the groups do not appear isolated by great unbridged gaps, as they did even twenty years ago. By means of the fossils either direct connections or probable lines of connection are discovered which link up the series of families. At present the greatest gap now lies hedging in the Moss family, and, as was mentioned, fossil botany cannot as yet throw much light on that problem owing to the lack of fossil mosses.

This glimpse into the past suggests a prophecy for the future. Evolution having proceeded steadily for such vast periods is not likely to stop at the stage reached by the plants of to-day. What will be the main line of advance of the plants of the future, and how will they differ from those of the present?

We have seen in the past how the differentiation of size in the spores resulted in sex, and in the higher plants in the modifications along widely different lines of the male and female; how the large spore (female) became enclosed in protecting tissues, which finally led up to true seeds, while the male being so temporary had no such elaboration. As the seed advances it becomes more and more complex, and when we reach still higher plants further surrounding tissues are pressed into its service and it becomes enclosed in the carpel of the highest flowering plants. After that the seed itself has fewer general duties, and instead of those of the Gymnosperms with large endosperms collecting food before the embryo appears, small ovules suffice, which only develop after fertilization is assured. The various families of flowering plants have gone further, and the whole complex series of bracts and fertile parts which make up a flower is adapted to ensure the crossing of male and female of different individuals. The complex mechanisms which seem adapted for “cross fertilization” are innumerable, and are found in the highest groups of the flowering plants. But some have gone beyond the stage when the individual flowers had each its device, and accomplished its seed-bearing independently of the other flowers on the same branch. These have a combination of many flowers crowded together into one community, in which there is specialization of different flowers for different duties. In such a composite flower, the Daisy for example, some are large petalled and brightly coloured to attract the pollen-carrying insects, some bear the male organs only, and others the female or seed-producing. Here, then, in the most advanced type of flowering plant we get back again to the separation of the sexes in separate flowers; but these flowers are combined in an organized community much more complex than the cones of the Gymnosperms, for example, where the sexes are separate on a lower plane of development.

It seems possible that an important group, if not the dominant group, of flowering plants in the future will be so organized that the individual flowers are very simple, with fewer parts than those of to-day, but that they will be combined in communities of highly specialized individuals in each flower head or cluster.

As well as this, in other species the minute structure of the vital organs may show a development in a direction contrary to what has hitherto seemed advance. Until recently flowers and their organs have appeared to us to be specialized in the more advanced groups on such lines as encourage “cross fertilization”. In “cross fertilization”, in fact, has appeared to lie the secret of the strength and advance of the races of plants. But modern cytologists have found that many of the plants long believed to depend on cross fertilization are either self-fertilized or not fertilized at all! They have passed through the period when their complex structures for ensuring cross fertilization were used, and though they retain these external structures they have taken to a simpler method of seed production, and in some cases have even dispensed with fertilization of the egg cell altogether. The female vitality increased, the male becomes superfluous. It is simpler and more direct to breed with only one sex, or to use the pollen of the same individual. Many flowers are doing this which until recently had not been suspected of it. We cannot yet tell whether it will work successfully for centuries to come or is an indication of “race senility”.

Whether in the epochs to come flowering plants will continue to hold the dominant position which they now do is an interesting theoretical problem. Flowers were evolved in correlation with insect pollination. One can conceive of a future, when all the earth is under dominion of man, in which fruits will be sterilized for man’s use, as the banana is now, and seed formation largely replaced by gardeners’ “cuttings”.

In those plants which are now living where the complex mechanisms for cross-fertilization have been superseded by simple self-fertilization, the external parts of the more elaborate method are still produced, though they are apparently futile. In the future these vestigial organs will be discarded, or developed in a more rudimentary form (for it is remarkable how organs that were once used by the race reappear in members of it that have long outgrown their use), and the morphology of the flower will be greatly simplified.

Thus we can foresee on both sides much simplified individual flowers:in the one group the reduced individuals associating together in communities the members of which are highly specialized, and in the other the solitary flowers becoming less elaborate and conspicuous, as they no longer need the assistance of insects (the cleistogamic flowers of the Violet, for example, even in the present day bend toward the earth, and lack all the bright attractiveness of ordinary flowers), and perhaps finally developing underground, where the seeds could directly germinate.

In the vegetative organs less change is to be expected, the examples from the past lead us to foresee no great difference in size or general organization of the essential parts, though the internal anatomy has varied, and probably will vary, greatly with the whole evolution of the plant.

But one more point and we must have done. Why do plants evolve at all? Why did they do so through the geological ages of the past, and why should we expect them to do so in the future? The answer to this question must be less assured than it might have been even twenty years ago, when the magnetism of Darwin’s discoveries and elucidations seemed to obsess his disciples. “Response to environment” is undoubtedly a potent factor in the course of evolution, but it is not the cause of it. There seems to be something inherent in life, something apparently (though that may be due to our incomplete powers of observation) apart from observable factors of environment which causes slight spontaneous changes, mutations, and some individuals of a species will suddenly develop in a new direction in one or other of their parts. If, then, this places them in a superior position as regards their environment or neighbours, it persists, but if not, those individuals die out. The work of a special branch of modern botany seems clearly to indicate the great importance of this seemingly inexplicable spontaneity of life. In environment alone the thoughtful student of the present cannot find incentive enough for the great changes and advances made by organisms in the course of the world’s history. The climate and purely physical conditions of the Coal Measure period were probably but little different from those in some parts of the world to-day, but the plants themselves have fundamentally changed. True, their effect upon each other must be taken into account, but this is a less active factor with plants than with men, for we can imagine nothing equivalent to citizenship, society, and education in the plant communities, which are so vital in human development.

It seems to have been proved that plants and animals may, at certain unknown intervals, “mutate”; and mutation is a fine word to express our recent view of one of the essential factors in evolution. But it is a cloak for an ignorance avowedly less mitigated than when we thought to have found a complete explanation of the causes of evolution in “environment”.

In a sketch such as the present, outlines alone are possible, detail cannot be elaborated. If it has suggested enough of atmosphere to show the vastness of the landscape spreading out before our eyes back into the past and on into the future, the task has been accomplished. There are many detailed volumes which follow out one or other special line of enquiry along the highroads and by-ways of this long traverse in creation. If the bird’s-eye view of the country given in this book entices some to foot it yard by yard under the guidance of specialists for each district, it will have done its part. While to those who will make no intimate acquaintance with so far off a land it presents a short account by a traveller, so that they may know something of the main features and a little of the romance of the fossil world.