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Leaves, sporophylls, and strobili

A third adaptation marks seedless vascular plants. Accompanying the prominence of the sporophyte and the development of vascular tissue, the appearance of true leaves improved photosynthetic efficiency. Leaves capture more sunlight with their increased surface area.

In addition to photosynthesis, leaves play another role in the life of the plants. Pinecones, mature fronds of ferns, and flowers are all sporophylls —leaves that were modified structurally to bear sporangia. Strobili are structures that contain the sporangia. They are prominent in conifers and are known commonly as cones: for example, the pine cones of pine trees.

Seedless vascular plants

By the Late Devonian period (385 million years ago), plants had evolved vascular tissue, well-defined leaves, and root systems. With these advantages, plants increased in height and size. During the Carboniferous period (359–299 million years ago), swamp forests of club mosses and horsetails, with some specimens reaching more than 30 meters tall, covered most of the land. These forests gave rise to the extensive coal deposits that gave the Carboniferous its name. In seedless vascular plants, the sporophyte became the dominant phase of the lifecycle.

Water is still required for fertilization of seedless vascular plants, and most favor a moist environment. Modern-day seedless vascular plants include club mosses, horsetails, ferns, and whisk ferns.

Club mosses

The club mosses , or Lycophyta, are the earliest group of seedless vascular plants. They dominated the landscape of the Carboniferous period, growing into tall trees and forming large swamp forests. Today’s club mosses are diminutive, evergreen plants consisting of a stem (which may be branched) and small leaves called microphylls ( [link] ). The division Lycophyta consists of close to 1,000 species, including quillworts ( Isoetales ), club mosses (Lycopodiales), and spike mosses (Selaginellales): none of which is a true moss.

 In the photo club moss stems have the appearance of long, slender stalks.
Lycopodium clavatum is a club moss. (credit: Cory Zanker)

Horsetails

Ferns and whisk ferns belong to the division Pterophyta. A third group of plants in the Pterophyta, the horsetails, is sometimes classified separately from ferns. Horsetails have a single genus, Equisetum . They are the survivors of a large group of plants, known as Arthrophyta, which produced large trees and entire swamp forests in the Carboniferous. The plants are usually found in damp environments and marshes ( [link] ).

 In the photo horsetails are bushy and grow in water.
Horsetails thrive in a marsh. (credit: Myriam Feldman)

The stem of a horsetail is characterized by the presence of joints, or nodes: hence the name Arthrophyta, which means “jointed plant”. Leaves and branches come out as whorls from the evenly spaced rings. The needle-shaped leaves do not contribute greatly to photosynthesis, the majority of which takes place in the green stem ( [link] ).

 Photo shows a horsetail with a thick stem and whorls of thin stems branching from it.
Thin leaves originating at the joints are noticeable on the horsetail plant. (credit: Myriam Feldman)

Ferns and whisk ferns

Ferns are considered the most advanced seedless vascular plants and display characteristics commonly observed in seed plants. Ferns form large leaves and branching roots. In contrast, whisk ferns , the psilophytes, lack both roots and leaves, which were probably lost by evolutionary reduction. Evolutionary reduction is a process by which natural selection reduces the size of a structure that is no longer favorable in a particular environment. Photosynthesis takes place in the green stem of a whisk fern. Small yellow knobs form at the tip of the branch stem and contain the sporangia. Whisk ferns have been classified outside the true ferns; however, recent comparative analysis of DNA suggests that this group may have lost both vascular tissue and roots through evolution, and is actually closely related to ferns.

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts of biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11487/1.9
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