An Online Introduction to the Biology of Animals and Plants


Key Concepts


Section 2

Chapter 5

Angiosperms - Flowering Plants 




There is a very good chance that the vast majority of the plants you can see out your window are angiosperms.  They have taken over the land since their rise during the Age of Dinosaurs, pushing the other groups to the ecological fringes.  Gymnosperms still have an advantage in systems that are too cold and/or dry (they become more common with higher altitude and higher latitude), or have nutrient-poor soils, and so haven't been completely pushed out of business.

Reproduction in angiosperms follows a course similar to that in conifers, with the gametophytes confined to a periodically-made part on the main sporophyte.  These gametophytes are parts of the characteristic feature of the group:  flowers.  Although some species have separate male and female flowers, most have both male and female gametophytes in each flower.  Many angiosperm flowers don't look like what you might expect of a flower - this is discussed below in the section on coevolution.

Angiosperms get their name from the fact that the seeds (which are sporophyte embryos packaged with some fuel to sprout with) are produced inside a fruit, a structure used to move seeds away from the parent plant.  All angiosperms produce fruit, although some might not be things you would see as fruit:  fruits can be built to fly through the air (maple trees and dandelions make this type), float across the water (coconuts), stick to passers-by (burrs), as well as be eaten by animals.  Even edible fruit is almost never meant to act as a food source for the seeds inside.

Angiosperms are vascular plants, containing xylem (going up) and phloem (bringing down) in various bundled patterns.  They have true roots, for holding the plants firm as well as for taking in water and nutrients;  they have true stems, for support and for moving materials up and down;  they have leaves, usually flat, for most of their photosynthesis.  Leaves, and sometimes stems, have pores called stomates that can be opened or closed.  When open, carbon dioxide for photosynthesis enters air spaces inside the leaf through which it gets to photosynthetic cells, but water is also lost (this is the main source of transpiration from angiosperms).  By controlling the pores, a plant can get enough carbon dioxide for its needs and minimize its water losses.  Clusters of xylem and phloem, plus a reinforcing sheath to help support the leaf, are called veins.

Angiosperm stems may be green (herbaceous), which are capable of photosynthesis or woody.  Green stems have support limits;  woody stems, with ring after ring of tightly-packed cells with very rigid cell walls, are present in the large angiosperms, the trees.  Gymnosperms also produce trees with ringed stems.




As was true in the gymnosperms, the "main plants" in angiosperms are sporophytes, while the gametophytes are confined to the flowers, usually male and female together.  Male gametophytes are called stamens, female gametophytes are pistils.  The pollen from the stamen has to reach the pistil and make a pollen tube to the base of the flower, the ovary, and the ovules, where the egg cells are.  Once the egg cells are fertilized, the embryos are sealed up with food in a seed and the ovary is converted into a fruit.

The seeds often wait for some environmental cue, such as warmth, moisture, or light periods shifts, before germinating, sprouting.  A type of growth hormone known as auxins, which settled to the bottom of the sprouting root and stem as they emerge, have different effects on those parts:  auxin-soaked root cells grow more slowly, making the top of the root grow faster and curve the root downward;  auxin-soaked stem cells grow faster, curving the stem up.

In a mature plant, auxins migrate away from the sunlit side of the plant - if the light is coming in from the side, the migration causes the stem to curve toward the light as it grows and better orient the leaves to catch light.  Plants produce many different types of hormones that can affect reproduction, overall growth, defenses, fruit ripening, and other features.

Production of new cells in plants happens in a type of tissue called the meristem.  Meristems can be, and usually are, at the growing tips of the plants, where they are called apical meristems.  Most plants add new cells from the tips out, not evenly all over and not from the bottom up - in the other parts of the plant, the cells grow but do not divide.  Leaves, branching stems or roots, and flowers all are produced by apical meristems.  Some growth may also occur along the sides of the plants, such as is found in the rings of trees - these are called lateral meristemsThese make tree ring patterns in ecosystems with growing seasons,  where growth produces big, "light" cells, alternating with seasons of less growth (cold winters or dry periods), which produce smaller, "darker" cells - each light/dark zone is a ring, and the wider, lighter the ring, the better that growth season, leaving a record of year-to-year climate.




The flowering plants are generally treated as two separate groups, named for a feature in their seeds called a cotyledon.  The monocots have a single-piece seed (corn is a good example of a monocot), while the dicots have a two-piece seed (a peanut is a clear example of the seed, but a maple may be a better overall example of a dicot).  There are several general differences between the two subgroups:

One-piece Seeds Two-piece Seeds
Flower Parts in multiples of 3 Flower Parts in multiples of 4 or 5
Leaf Veins mostly parallel each other Leaf Veins branch out from a central vein
Root Systems mostly branch out equally from base (Fibrous Roots) Root Systems mostly have one major root from which smaller ones grow (Taproot)
Stems do not grow in Ring Pattern  (never woody) Stems sometimes grow in ring pattern (sometimes woody)
Vascular Bundles form ring pattern in roots, scattered in stems Vascular Bundles in middle of root, form ring in stems

There are a few other differences between the groups, including subtle differences in pollen, but the listed ones are the best known and easiest to recognize.  There are many exceptions, so usually a combination of traits must be looked at to be sure which group a plant belongs to - and even then, some plants are not so clearly in one group or the other.  

Vascular bundles are collections of xylem, phloem, and other tissues, laid out in different patterns in the two groups.  In woody plants, the outermost rings are the active xylem, with active phloem on the underside of the bark.  Peeling a strip of bark from all the way around a tree will cut off the roots' food supply (phloem, remember, carries fuel from photosynthesis down to the lower parts) and eventually kill the tree.




Since a significant part of any organism's ecosystem is the other organisms it shares that system with, it should come as no surprise that much of evolution is driven by interactions between individuals of different species, sometimes driving long-term relationships between the species.  The interactions can be cooperative, as happens in a symbiosis, or more of an ongoing battle, as happens between predator and prey or plant-eater and plant.  The evolutionary process where two species adapt to each other over time is called coevolution.

Coevolution is obvious throughout the angiosperms.  The most well-known is the use of animals as pollinators, carriers of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of another flower.  These angiosperms have evolved ways to make their flowers stand out in the environment to their pollinators, both visually and with smells, and often present "rewards" such as food to bring pollinators back over and over.  The construction of a flower is often a clue to its pollinators.  Many flowers without pollinators have no colors or odors, and pollen bearing and catching parts stick out in the air:  these are wind-pollinated, common in many grasses.  Some flowers are broad, with stumpy parts:  these are often pollinated by crawling insects.  Some flowers are tall and narrow, with a central platform:  these are commonly pollinated by flying insects, who press past the anthers on the way in and pick up pollen, then land on the next flower's pistil, leaving pollen there.  Flowers can give clues about their pollinators:  the reason that red flowers rarely use bees (and often use beetles) as pollinators was a clue toward the discovery that bees don't see red as a color (although they can see ultraviolet as a color, and some bee-pollinated flowers are ultraviolet-colored).  Fruits also have often evolved to use particular types of animals as seed-carriers, although the relationships are rarely as carrier-specific as those that have developed with pollinators.

Other types of coeveolution exist in angiosperms:  many defenses, such as thorns and poisons, are set against particular types of enemies.  Many of the drugs that humans use recreationally are derived from the poisons plants have developed to fight their insect enemies:  the active ingredients in tobacco, cocaine, and marijuana are all neurotoxins, natural equivalents of RaidTM.  

One of the lesser-known theories about the decline of the dinosaurs hypothesizes that the plants that served as the basis of their food chain adapted defenses against them and effectively put the "out of business."  It seems unlikely, especially given that our plant-eating relatives haven't been fought off very well.


Informational Links


Way more than you ever wanted to know about auxins. 

How to get many different seed varieties to germinate.


Click on term to go to it in the text.
Terms are in the order they appear.


Gymnosperm-Dominated Environments

Angiosperm Seeds
Angiosperm Roots
Angiosperm Stems
Angiosperm Leaves


Life Cycle
Pollen Tube
Fruit Formation
Auxins & Sprouting
Auxins and Light
Hormone Effects
Apical Meristem
Lateral Meristem
Tree Rings
Using Tree Rings as Climate Record
Monocots vs Dicots
Vascular Bundles
Flower Form & Function
Plant Defenses





Online Introduction to the Biology of Animals and Plants.

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