Ancient Plants – The Seven Ages of Plant Life


Life has played its important part on the earth for countless series of years, of the length of whose periods no one has any exact knowledge. Many guesses have been made, and many scientific theories have been used to estimate their duration, but they remain inscrutable. When numbers are immense they cease to hold any meaning for us, for the human mind cannot comprehend the significance of vast numbers, of immense space, or of æons of time. Hence when we look back on the history of the world we cannot attempt to give even approximate dates for its events, and the best we can do is to speak only of great periods as units whose relative position and whose relative duration we can estimate to some extent.

Those who have studied geology, which is the science of the world’s history since its beginning, have given names to the great epochs and to their chief subdivisions. With the smaller periods and the subdivisions of the greater ones we will not concern ourselves, for our study of the plants it will suffice if we recognize the main sequence of past time.

The main divisions are practically universal, and evidence of their existence and of the character of the creatures living in them can be found all over the world; the smaller divisions, however, may often be local, or only of value in one continent. To the specialist even the smallest of them is of importance, and is a link in the chain of evidence with which he cannot dispense; but we are at present concerned only with the broad outlines of the history of the plants of these periods, so will not trouble ourselves with unnecessary details. Corresponding to certain marked changes in the character of the vegetation, we find seven important divisions of geological time which we will take as our unit periods, and which are tabulated as follows::


I. Present Day.

II. Tertiary.


III. Upper Cretaceous (or Chalk).

IV. The rest of the Mesozoic.

V. Newer Palæozoic, including





VI. Older Palæozoic.


VII. Archæan.

Now the actual length of these various periods was very different. The epoch of the Present Day is only in its commencement, and is like a thin line if compared with the broad bands of the past epochs. By far the greatest of the periods is the Archæan, and even the Older Palæozoic is probably longer than all the others taken together. It is, however, so remote, and the rocks which were formed in it retain so little plant structure that is decipherable, so few specimens which are more than mere fragments, that we know very little about it from the point of view of the plant life of the time. It includes the immense indefinite epochs when plants began to evolve, and the later ones when animals of many kinds flourished, and when plants, too, were of great size and importance, though we are ignorant of their structure. Of all the seven divisions of time, we can say least about the two earliest, simply for want of anything to say which is founded on fact rather than on theoretical conclusions.

Although these periods seem clearly marked off from one another when looked at from a great distance, they are, of course, but arbitrary divisions of one long, continuous series of slow changes. It is not in the way of nature to make an abrupt change and suddenly shut off one period:be it a day or an æon: from another, and just as the seasons glide almost imperceptibly into one another, so did the great periods of the past. Thus, though there is a strong and very evident contrast between the plants typical of the Carboniferous period and of the Mesozoic, those of the Permian are to some extent intermediate, and between the beginning of the Permian and the end of the Carboniferous:if judged by the flora:it is often hard to decide.

It must be realized that almost any given spot of land:the north of England, for example:has been beneath the sea, and again elevated into the air, at least more than once. That the hard rocks which make its present-day hills have been built up from the silt and debris under an ocean, and after being formed have seen daylight on a land surface long ago, and sunk again to be covered by newer deposits, perhaps even a second or a third time, before they rose for the time that is the present. Yet all these profound changes took place so slowly that had we been living then we could have felt no motion, just as we feel no motion to-day, though the land is continuing to change all around us. The great alternations between land and water over large areas mark out to some extent the main periods tabulated on p. 34, for after each great submersion the rising land seems to have harbored plants and animals with somewhat different characters from those which inhabited it before. Similarly, when the next submersion laid down more rocks of limestone and sandstone, they enclosed the shells of some creatures different from those which had inhabited the seas of the region previously.

Through all the periods the actual rocks formed are very similar: shales, limestones, sandstones, clays. When any rocks happen to have preserved neither plant nor animal remains it is almost impossible to tell to which epoch they belong, except from a comparative study of their position as regards other rocks which do retain fossils. This depends on the fact that the physical processes of rock building have gone on throughout the history of the globe on very much the same lines as they are following at present. By the sifting power of water, fine mud, sand, pebbles, and other debris are separated from each other and collected in masses like to like. The fine mud will harden into shales, sandgrains massed together harden into sandstones, and so on, and when, after being raised once more to form dry land, they are broken up by wind and rain and brought down again to the sea, they settle out once again in a similar way and form new shales and sandstones; and so on indefinitely. But meantime the living things, both plant and animal, have been changing, growing, evolving, and the leafy twig brought down with the sandgrains in the flooded river of one epoch differs from that brought down by the river of a succeeding epoch:though it might chance that the sandgrains were the same identical ones. And hence it is by the remains of the plants and animals in a rock that we can tell to which epoch it belonged. Unless, of course, ready-formed fossils from an earlier epoch get mixed with it, coming as pebbles in the river in flood:but that is a subtle point of geological importance which we cannot consider here. Such cases are almost always recognizable, and do not affect the main proposition.

From the various epochs, the plants which have been preserved as fossils are in nearly all cases those which had lived on the land, or at least on swamps and marshes by the land. Of water plants in the wide sense, including both those growing in fresh water and those in the sea, we have comparatively few. This lack is particularly remarkable in the case of the seaweeds, because they were actually growing in the very medium in which the bulk of the rocks were formed, and which we know from recent experiments acts as a preservative for the tissues of land plants submerged in it. It must be remembered, however, that almost all the plants growing in water have very soft tissues, and are usually of small size and delicate structure as compared with land plants, and thus would stand less chance of being preserved, and would also stand less chance of being recognized to-day were they preserved. The mark on a stone of the impression of a soft film of a waterweed would be very slight as compared with that left by a leathery leaf or the woody twig of a land plant.

There are, of course, exceptions, and, as will be noted later on, there are fossil seaweeds and fossil freshwater plants, but we may take it on the whole that the fossils we shall have to deal with and that give important evidence, are those of the land which had drifted out to sea, in the many cases when they are found in rocks together with sea shells.

Let us now consider very shortly the salient features of the seven epochs we have named as the chief divisions of time. The vegetation of the Carboniferous Period is better known to us than that of any other period except that of the present day, so that it will form the best starting-point for our consideration.

At this period there were, as there are to-day, oceans and continents, high lands, low lands, rivers and lakes, in fact, all the physical features of the present-day world, but they were all in different places from those of to-day. If we confine our attention to Britain, we find that at that period the far north, Scotland, Wales, and Charnwood were higher land, but the bulk of the southern area was covered by flat swamps or shallow inlets, where the land level gradually changed, slowly sinking in one place and slowly rising in others, which later began also to sink. Growing on this area wherever they could get a foothold were many plants, all different from any now living. Among them none bore flowers. A few families bore seeds in a peculiar way, differing widely from most seed-bearing plants of to-day. The most prevalent type of tree was that of which a stump is represented in the frontispiece, and of which there were many different species. These plants, though in size and some other ways similar to the great trees of to-day, were fundamentally different from them, and belonged to a very primitive family, of which but few and small representatives now exist, namely the Lycopods. Many other great trees were like hugely magnified “horsetails” or Equisetums; and there were also seed-bearing Gymnosperms of a type now extinct. There were ferns of many kinds, of which the principal ones belong to quite extinct families, as well as several other plants which have no parallel among living ones. Hence one may judge that the vegetation was rich and various, and that, as there were tall trees with seeds, the plants were already very highly evolved. Indeed, except for the highest group of all, the flowering plants, practically all the main groups now known were represented. The flora of the Devonian was very similar in essentials.

If that be so, it may seem unsatisfactory to place all the preceding æons under one heading, the Older Palæozoic. And, indeed, it is very unsatisfactory to be forced to do so. We know from the study of animal fossils that this time was vast, and that there were several well-defined periods in it during which many groups of animals evolved, and became extinct after reaching their highest development; but of the plants we know so little that we cannot make any divisions of time which would be of real value in helping us to understand them.

Fossil plants from the Early Palæozoic there are, but extremely few as compared with the succeeding period, and those few but little illuminative. In the later divisions of the Pre-Carboniferous some of the plants seem to belong to the same genera as those of the Carboniferous period. There is a fern which is characteristic of one of the earlier divisions, and there are several rather indefinite impressions which may be considered as seaweeds. There is evidence also that even one of the higher groups bearing seeds (the Cordaiteæ) was in full swing long before the Carboniferous period began. Hence, though of Older Palæozoic plants we know little of actual fact, we can surmise the salient truths; viz., that in that period those plants must have been evolving which were important in the Devonian and Carboniferous periods; that in the earlier part of that period they did not exist, and the simpler types only clothed the earth; and that further back still, even the simpler types had not yet evolved.

Names have been given to many fragmentary bits of fossils, but for practical purposes we might as well be without them. For the present the actual plants of the Older Palæozoic must remain in a misty obscurity, their forms we can imagine, but not know.

On the other hand, of the more recent periods, those succeeding the Carboniferous, we have a little more knowledge. Yet for all these periods, even the Tertiary immediately preceding the present day, our knowledge is far less exact and far less detailed than it is for that unique period, the Carboniferous itself.

The characteristic plants of the Carboniferous period are all very different from those of the present, and every plant of that date is now extinct. In the succeeding periods the main types of vegetation changed, and with each succeeding change advanced a step towards the stage now reached.

The Permian, geologically speaking, was a period of transition. Toward the close of the Carboniferous there were many important earth movements which raised the level of the land and tended to enclose the area of water in what is now Eastern Europe, and to make a continental area with inland seas. Many of the Carboniferous genera are found to extend through the Permian and then die out, while at the same time others became quite extinct as the physical conditions changed. The seed-bearing plants became relatively more important, and though the genus Cordaites died out at the end of the period it was succeeded by an increasing number of others of more advanced type.

When we come to the older Mesozoic rocks, we have in England at any rate an area which was slowly submerging again. The more important of the plants which are preserved, and they are unfortunately all too few, are of a type which has not yet appeared in the earlier rocks, and are in some ways like the living Cycas, though they have many characters fundamentally different from any living type. In the vegetation of this time, plants of Cycad-like appearance seem to have largely predominated, and may certainly be taken as the characteristic feature of the period. The great Lycopod and Equisetum-like trees of the Carboniferous are represented now only by smaller individuals of the same groups, and practically all the genera which were flourishing in the Carboniferous times have become extinct.

The Cycad-like plants, however, were far more numerous and varied in character and widely spread than they ever were in any succeeding time. Still, no flowers (as we understand the word to-day) had appeared, or at least we have no indication in any fossil hitherto discovered, that true flowers were evolved until towards the end of the period (see, however, Chapter X).

The newer Mesozoic or Upper Cretaceous period represents a relatively deep sea area over England, and the rocks then formed are now known as the chalk, which was all deposited under an ocean of some size whose water must have been clear, and on the whole free from ordinary debris, for the chalk is a remarkably homogeneous deposit. From the point of view of plant history, the Upper Mesozoic is notable, because in it the flowering plants take a suddenly important position. Beds of this age (though of very different physical nature) are known all over the world, and in them impressions of leaves and fruits, or their casts, are well represented. The leaves are those of both Monocotyledons and Dicotyledons, and the genera are usually directly comparable with those now living, and sometimes so similar that they appear to belong to the same genus. The cone-bearing groups of the Gymnosperms are still present and are represented by a number of forms, but they are far fewer in varieties than are the groups of flowering plants:while the Cycad-like plants, so important in the Lower Mesozoic, have relatively few representatives. There is, it almost seems, a sudden jump from the flowerless type of vegetation of the Lower Mesozoic, to a flora in the Upper Mesozoic which is strikingly like that of the present day.

The Tertiary period is a short one (geologically speaking, and compared with those going before it), and during it the land level rose again gradually, suffering many great series of earth movements which built most of the mountain chains in Europe which are standing to the present day. In the many plant-containing deposits of this age, we find specimens indicating that the flora was very similar to the plants now living, and that flowering plants held the dominant position in the forests, as they do to-day. In fact, from the point of view of plant evolution, it is almost an arbitrary and unnecessary distinction to separate the Tertiary epoch from the present, because the main features of the vegetation are so similar. There are, however, such important differences in the distribution of the plants of the Tertiary and those of the present times, that the distinction is advisable; but it must always be remembered that it is not comparable with the wide differences between the other epochs.

Among the plants now living we find representatives of most, though not of all, of the great groups of plants which have flourished in the past, though in the course of time all the species have altered and those of the earliest earth periods have become extinct. The relative importance of the different groups changes greatly in the various periods, and as we proceed through the ages of time we see the dominant place in the plant world held successively by increasingly advanced types, while the plants which dominated earlier epochs dwindle and take a subordinate position. For example, the great trees of the Carboniferous period belonged to the Lycopod family, which to-day are represented by small herbs creeping along the ground. The Cycad-like plants of the Mesozoic, which grew in such luxuriance and in such variety, are now restricted to a small number of types scattered over the world in isolated localities.

During all the periods of which we have any knowledge there existed a rich and luxuriant vegetation composed of trees, large ferns, and small herbs of various kinds, but the members of this vegetation have changed fundamentally with the changing earth, and unlike the earth in her rock-forming they have never repeated themselves.