The Daily Garden is all about plant vocabulary. Today, we are looking at overall plant anatomy because it can be difficult to talk about something if you don’t know the words.
By taking a closer look at plant anatomy, we will be better able to understand each other, we can get more out of plant descriptions, and be better able to identify those mystery plants that always seem to pop up in the yard.
Plant anatomy, or phytotomy, starts with simple descriptions of the outside and inside of plants. Remember those black-line masters from grade school used to teach parts of a plant? Well, let’s start there.
Basic plant systems
Plants are have two basic systems: roots and shoots, with the root system below ground and the shoot system above ground. Roots provide anchorage and often store nutrients. Roots can develop as a taproot or fibrous root system. Roots have hairs that absorb water and nutrients. The shoot system consists of vegetative parts (leaves and stems) and reproductive parts (buds, fruits, seeds, and flowers or cones). Let’s take a closer look at each of those parts.
Leaves are the sugar factories of the plant world, absorbing sunlight and converting it into sugar through photosynthesis. The wide, flat part of a leaf is called the blade, or lamina. The shape of the leaf blade is very useful in plant identification, as is the way those leaves are arranged along a stem and the pattern of veins within a leaf. The edge of the leaf is called its margin. Leaves are coated with a waxy protective cuticle. There are tiny holes, usually found on the underside of a leaf, called stoma, that allow plants to exchange gases with the environment and to regulate water flow within the plant. The stem that connects a leaf to a stem is the petiole. Leaflike structures seen at the base of the petiole are called stipules,
Stems support leaves, flowers and buds. These structures are attached at nodes. The spaces between nodes are called internodes. Herbaceous stems have waxy cuticles for protection while woody plants have bark. Stems contain a vascular system that consists of the xylem, phloem and may include a cambium layer. This system carries food, water, and minerals throughout the plant. That vascular system is arranged in a circular pattern in dicots and eudicots, while it is more scattered in monocots. Twigs are woody stems from the previous year. Branches are more than one year old and may have lateral stems. Trunks are the main stem of woody plants, such as trees and shrubs. Canes are a type of stem filled with spongy pith. Canes generally only live for a year or two. Modified stems occur both above and below ground. Bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers, such as potatoes, are below ground modified stems. Crowns, spurs, and stolons are aboveground modified stems. Thorns are also modified stems, but rose thorns are not really thorns. They are prickles, which are modified epidural, or skin cells. Stubby stems, called spurs, produce fruit buds.
Buds are shoots that may develop into leaves or flowers. Buds are identified by their location on a stem: lateral buds are found along the sides of a stem, while terminal buds are found at the end. Lateral buds usually grow where leaves meet the stem and are called axillary buds. Renegade adventitious buds may show up at injury sites, on roots, or even at the edge of a leaf. The place where buds fall off leave a mark called a bud scar. Tree leaf buds have scales, while leaf buds of annuals and herbaceous perennials have delicate naked buds. Potato eyes are clusters of buds.
Fruits are ripened plant ovaries. Fruits can be simple (formed with one ovary), as in the case of stone fruits, or compound (formed with several fused ovaries). Compound fruits can be multiple or aggregate. Apples and other pomes are multiple compound fruits. You can tell by the 5-pointed star shape in the center of the fruit. Raspberries, which are drupes, not berries, along with pineapples and figs are formed by many flowers fusing together and are called aggregate fruits. By the way, strawberries are not berries, either. They are ripened receptacles. Berries, such as pumpkins, cantaloupes, cucumbers, eggplants, and tomatoes, all have many seeds inside an outer shell of varying thicknesses and hardnesses. Dry fruits, such as peas and beans, grow in pods that either open down a seam (dehiscent), or stay closed (indehiscent), as in the case of peanuts and most cereal grains, such as wheat and barley.
Seeds have three parts: the embryonic plant, stored food, called endosperm, and a protective seed coat. As temperatures rise and moisture is absorbed through the sed coat, a primary root, called the radicle, will emerge, followed by the first stem, or hypocotyl. First leaves, or cotyledons often look very different from adult leaves.
Flowers exist solely to attract pollinators. Only angiosperms make flowers. Gymnosperms, such as conifers, ginkgo trees, and cycads make cones, or strobili. The colors, patterns, showy displays, and sweet aromas we associate with flowers are all in place to attract insects, bats, and birds. Flowers are supported by a stem called a peduncle. Small green leaf-like structure, called sepals, are often seen at the base of a flower. A collection of sepals is called a calyx. Individual petals may produce nectar or scent. All of the petals together are called the corolla. The combined corolla and calyx are called the perianth. The tip of a flower stalk, called the receptacle, contains the plant’s reproductive organs. Flowers can be male, female, or both, though not always at the same time. The female part, or pistil, consists of a pollen-receiving stigma, supportive style, and the ovary. [When you eat saffron, you are eating the style and stigma of an autumn crocus flower.] The male part, or stamen, consists of a pollen-producing anther and a supporting filament. Flowers are very useful in plant identification.
Genetic research and electron microscopes have brought plant anatomy to exciting new levels. Assumptions about kinship have been wrecked asunder and colorized scanning electron microscope (SEM) images can be breathtaking. Different types of plant cells gather together to create tissues. Those tissues come together to create the functional parts of a plant.
Ultimately, all those functional parts grow into delicious, nutritious foods that we can cultivate in our yards for decades. For me, feet up in the yard with a nice glass of wine beats standing in line at a grocery store any day!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!