Ancient Plants – Stages in Plant Evolution


To attempt any discussion of the causes of evolution is far beyond the scope of the present work. At present we must accept life as we find it, endowed with an endless capacity for change and a continuous impulse to advance. We can but study in some degree the course taken by its changes.

From the most primitive beginnings of the earliest periods, enormous advance had been made before we have any detailed records of the forms. Yet there remain in the world of to-day numerous places where the types with the simplest structure can still flourish, and successfully compete with higher forms. Many places which, from the point of view of the higher plants, are undesirable, are well suited to the lower. Such places, for example, as the sea, and on land the small nooks and crannies where water drops collect, which are useless for the higher plants, suffice for the minute forms. In some cases the lower plants may grow in such masses together as to capture a district and keep the higher plants from it. Equisetum (the horsetail) does this by means of an extensive system of underground rhizomes which give the plant a very strong hold on a piece of land which favors it, so that the flowering plants may be quite kept from growing there.

In such places, by a variety of means, plants are now flourishing on the earth which represent practically all the main stages of development of plant life as a whole. It is to the study of the simpler of the living forms that we owe most of our conceptions of the course taken by evolution. Had we to depend on fossil evidence alone, we should be in almost complete ignorance of the earliest types of vegetation and all the simpler cohorts of plants, because their minute size and very delicate structure have always rendered them unsuitable for preservation in stone. At the same time, had we none of the knowledge of the numerous fossil forms which we now possess, there would be great gaps in the series which no study of living forms could supply. It is only by a study and comparison of both living and fossil plants of all kinds and from beds of all ages that we can get any true conception of the whole scheme of plant life.

Grouping together all the main families of plants at present known to us to exist or to have existed, we get the following series::

Group. Common examples of typical families in the group.


Algæ Seaweeds.

Fungi Moulds and toadstools.


Hepaticæ Liverworts.

Musci Mosses.


Equisetales Horsetails.

Sphenophyllales* fossil only, Sphenophyllum.

Lycopodales Club-moss.

Filicales Bracken fern.


Lyginodendræ* fossil only, Sphenopteris.


Cycadales Cycads.

Bennettitales* fossil only, Bennettites.

Ginkgoales Maidenhair Tree.

Cordaitales* fossil only, Cordaites.

Coniferales Pine, Yew.

Gnetales Welwitschia.


Monocotyledons Lily, Palm, Grass.

Dicotyledons Rose, Oak, Daisy.

In this table the different groups have not a strictly equivalent scientific value, but each of those in the second column represents a large and well-defined series of primary importance, whose members could not possibly be included along with any of the other groups.

Those marked with an asterisk are known only as fossils, and it will be seen that of the seventeen groups, so many as four are known only in the fossil state. This indicates, however, but a part of their importance, for in nearly every other group are many families or genera which are only known as fossils, though there are living representatives of the group as a whole.

In this table the individual families are not mentioned, because for the present we need only the main outline of classification to illustrate the principal facts about the course of evolution. As the table is given, the simplest families come first, the succeeding ones gradually increasing in complexity till the last group represents the most advanced type with which we are acquainted, and the one which is the dominant group of the present day.

This must not be taken as a suggestion that the members of this series have evolved directly one from the other in the order in which they stand in the table. That is indeed far from the case, and the relations between the groups are highly complex.

It must be remarked here that it is often difficult, even impossible, to decide which are the most highly evolved members of any group of plants. Each individual of the higher families is a very complicated organism consisting of many parts, each of which has evolved more or less independently of the others in response to some special quality of the surroundings. For instance, one plant may require, and therefore evolve, a very complex and well-developed water-carriage system while retaining a simple type of flower; another may grow where the water problem does not trouble it, but where it needs to develop special methods for getting its ovules pollinated; and so on, in infinite variety. As a result of this, in almost all plants we have some organs highly evolved and specialized, and others still in a primitive or relatively primitive condition. It is only possible to determine the relative positions of plants on the scale of development by making an average conclusion from the study of the details of all their parts. This, however, is beset with difficulties, and in most cases the scientist, weighed by personal inclinations, arbitrarily decides on one or other character to which he pays much attention as a criterion, while another scientist tends to lay stress on different characters which may point in another direction.

In no group is this better illustrated than among the Coniferæ, where the relative arrangement of the different families included in it is still very uncertain, and where the observations of different workers, each dealing mainly with different characters in the plants, tend to contradict each other.

This, however, as a byword. Notwithstanding these difficulties, which it would be unfair to ignore, the main scheme of evolution stands out clearly before the scientist of to-day, and his views are largely supported by many important facts from both fossil and living plants.

Very strong evidence points to the conclusion that the most primitive plants of early time were, like the simplest plants of to-day, water dwellers. Whether in fresh water or the sea is an undecided point, though opinion seems to incline in general to the view that the sea was the first home of plant life. It can, however, be equally well, and perhaps even more successfully argued, that the freshwater lakes and streams were the homes of the first families from which the higher plants have gradually been evolved.

For this there is no direct evidence in the rocks, for the minute forms of the single soft cells assumed by the most primitive types were just such as one could not expect to be successfully fossilized. Hence the earliest stages must be deduced from a comparative study of the simplest plants now living. Fortunately there is much material for this in the numerous waters of the earth, where swarms of minute types in many stages of complexity are to be found.

The simplest type of plants now living, which appears to be capable of evolution on lines which might have led to the higher plants, is that found in various members of the group of the Protococcoideæ among the Algæ. The claim of bacteria and other primitive organisms of various kinds to the absolute priority of existence is one which is entirely beyond the scope of a book dealing with fossil plants. The early evolution of the simple types of the Protococcoideæ is also somewhat beyond its scope, but as they appear to lie on the most direct “line of descent” of the majority of the higher plants it cannot be entirely ignored. From the simpler groups of the green Algæ other types have specialized and advanced along various directions, but among them there seems an inherent limitation, and none but the protococcoid forms seem to indicate the possibility of really high development.


Fig. 17.:A Protococcoid Plant consisting of one cell

p, Protoplasm; n, nucleus; g, coloring body or chloroplast; w, cell wall.

In a few words, a typical example of one of the simple Protococcoideæ may be described as consisting of a mass of protoplasm in which lie a recognizable nucleus and a green coloring body or chloroplast, with a cell wall or skin surrounding these vital structures, a cell wall that may at times be dispensed with or unusually thickened according as the need arises. This plant is represented in fig. 17 in a somewhat diagrammatic form.

In such a case the whole plant consists of one single cell, living surrounded by the water, which supplies it with the necessary food materials, and also protects it from drying up and from immediate contact with any hard or injurious object. When these plants propagate they divide into four parts, each one similar to the original cell, which all remain together within the main cell wall for a short time before they separate.

If now we imagine that the four cells do not separate, but remain together permanently, we can see the possibility of a beginning of specialization in the different parts of the cell. The single living cell is equally acted on from all sides, and in itself it must perform all the life functions; but where four lie together, each of the four cells is no longer equally acted on from all sides. This shows clearly in the diagram of a divided cell given in fig. 18. Here it is obvious that one side of each of the four cells, viz. that named a in the diagram, is on the outside and in direct contact with the water and external things; but walls b and c touch only the corresponding walls of the neighboring cells. Through walls b and c no food and water can enter directly, but at the same time they are protected from injury and external stimulus. Hence, in this group of four cells there is a slight differentiation of the sides of the cells. If now we imagine that each of the four cells, still remaining in contact, divides once more into four members, each of which reaches mature size while all remain together, then we have a group of sixteen cells, some of which will be entirely inside, and some of which will have walls exposed to the environment.


Fig. 18.:Diagram of Protococcoid Cell divided into four daughter cells. Walls a are external, and walls b and c in contact with each other.

If the cells of the group all divide again, in the manner shown the mass will become more than one cell thick, and the inner cells will be more completely differentiated, for they will be entirely cut off from the outside and all direct contact with water and food materials, and will depend on what the outer cells transmit to them. The outer cells will become specialized for protection and also for the absorption of the water and salts and air for the whole mass. From such a plastic group of green cells it is probable that the higher and increasingly complex forms of plants have evolved. There are still living plants which correspond with the groups of four, sixteen, &c., cells just now theoretically stipulated.


Fig. 19.:A, Details of Part of the Tissues in a Stem of a Flowering Plant. B, Diagram of the Whole Arrangement of Cross Section of a Stem: e, Outer protecting skin; g, green cells; s, thick-walled strengthening cells; p, general ground tissue cells. V, Groups of special conducting tissues: x, vessels for water carriage; px, first formed of the water vessels; c, growing cells to add to the tissues; b, food-conducting cells; ss, strengthening cells.

The higher plants of to-day all consist of very large numbers of cells forming tissues of different kinds, each of which is specialized more or less, some very elaborately, for the performance of certain functions of importance for the plant body as a whole. With the increase in the number of cells forming the solid plant body, the number of those living wholly cut off from the outside becomes increasingly great in comparison with those forming the external layer. Some idea of the complexity and differentiation of this cell mass is given in fig. 19, A, which shows the relative sizes and shapes of the cells composing a small part of the stem of a common flowering plant. The complete section would be circular and the groups V would be repeated round it symmetrically, and the whole would be enclosed by an unbroken layer of the cells marked e, as in the diagram B.


Fig. 20.:Conducting Cells and Surrounding Tissue seen in fig. 19, A, cut lengthways. px, First formed vessels for water conduction; x, larger vessel; b, food-conducting cells; ss, strengthening cells; p, general ground tissue.

In the tissues of the higher plants the most important feature is the complex system of conducting tissues, shown in the young condition in V in fig. 19, A. In them the food and water conducting elements are very much elongated and highly specialized cells, which run between the others much like a system of pipes in the brickwork of a house. These cells are shown cut longitudinally in fig. 20, where they are lettered to correspond with the cells in fig. 19, A, with which they should be compared. In such a view the great difference between the highly specialized cells x, px, b, &c., and those of the main mass of ground tissue p becomes apparent.

Even in the comparatively simply organized groups of the Equisetales and Lycopodiales the differentiation of tissues is complete. In the mosses, and still more in the liverworts, it is rudimentary; but they grow in very damp situations, where the conduction of water and the protection from too much drying is not a difficult problem for them. As plants grow higher into the air, or inhabit drier situations, the need of specialization of tissues becomes increasingly great, for they are increasingly liable to be dried, and therefore need a better flow of water and a more perfect protective coat.

It is needless to point out how the individual cells of a plant, such as that figured in figs. 19 and 20, have specialized away from the simple type of the protococcoid cell in their mature form. In the young growing parts of a plant, however, they are essentially like protococcoid cells of squarish outline, fitting closely to each other to make a solid mass, from which the individual types will differentiate later and take on the form suitable for the special part they have to play in the economy of the whole plant.

To trace the specialization not only of the tissues but of the various parts of the whole plant which have become elaborate organs, such as leaves, stems, and flowers, is a task quite beyond the present work to attempt. From the illustrations given of tissue structure from plants at the two ends of the series much can be imagined of the inevitable intermediate stages in tissue evolution.

As regards the elaboration of organs, and particularly of the reproductive organs, details will be found throughout the book. In judging of the place of any plant in the scale of evolution it is to the reproductive organs that we look for the principal criteria, for the reproductive organs tend to be influenced less by their physical surroundings than the vegetative organs, and are therefore truer guides to natural relationships.

In the essential cells of the reproductive organs, viz. the egg cell and the male cell, we get the most primitively organized cells in the plant body. In the simpler families both male and female cells return to the condition of a free-swimming protococcoid cell, and in all but the highest families the male cell requires a liquid environment, in which it swims to the egg cell. In the higher families the necessary water is provided within the structure of the seed, and the male cell does not swim, a naked, solitary cell, out into the wide world, as it does in all the families up to and including the Filicales. In the Coniferæ and Angiosperms the male cell does not swim, but is passive (or largely so), and is brought to the egg cell. One might almost say that the whole evolution of the complex structures found in fruiting cones and flowers is a result of the need of protection of the delicate, simple reproductive cells and the embryonic tissues resulting from their fusion. The lower plants scatter these delicate cells broadcast in enormous numbers, the higher plants protect each single egg cell by an elaborate series of tissues, and actually bring the male cell to it without ever allowing either of them to be exposed.

It must be assumed that the reader possesses a general acquaintance with the living families tabulated on p. 44; those of the fossil groups will be given in some detail in succeeding chapters which deal with the histories of the various families. It is premature to attempt any general discussion of the evolution of the various groups till all have been studied, so that this will be reserved for the concluding chapters.