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Biology LibreTexts

25.4D: Ferns and Other Seedless Vascular Plants

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  • Ferns, club mosses, horsetails, and whisk ferns are seedless vascular plants that reproduce with spores and are found in moist environments.


    Identify types of seedless vascular plants


    Key Points

    • Club mosses, which are the earliest form of seedless vascular plants, are lycophytes that contain a stem and microphylls.
    • Horsetails are often found in marshes and are characterized by jointed hollow stems with whorled leaves.
    • Photosynthesis occurs in the stems of whisk ferns, which lack roots and leaves.
    • Most ferns have branching roots and form large compound leaves, or fronds, that perform photosynthesis and carry the reproductive organs of the plant.

    Key Terms

    • sorus: a cluster of sporangia associated with a fern leaf
    • lycophyte: a tracheophyte subdivision of the Kingdom Plantae; the oldest extant (living) vascular plant division at around 410 million years old
    • sporangia: enclosures in which spores are formed

    Ferns and Other Seedless Vascular Plants

    Water is required for fertilization of seedless vascular plants; most favor a moist environment. Modern-day seedless tracheophytes include lycophytes and monilophytes.

    Phylum Lycopodiophyta: Club Mosses

    The club mosses, or phylum Lycopodiophyta, are the earliest group of seedless vascular plants. They dominated the landscape of the Carboniferous, 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 microphylls (leaves with a single unbranched vein). The phylum Lycopodiophyta consists of close to 1,200 species, including the quillworts (Isoetales), the club mosses (Lycopodiales), and spike mosses (Selaginellales), none of which are true mosses or bryophytes.

    Lycophytes follow the pattern of alternation of generations seen in the bryophytes, except that the sporophyte is the major stage of the life cycle. The gametophytes do not depend on the sporophyte for nutrients. Some gametophytes develop underground and form mycorrhizal associations with fungi. In club mosses, the sporophyte gives rise to sporophylls arranged in strobili, cone-like structures that give the class its name. Lycophytes can be homosporous or heterosporous.


    Strobili of club mosses: In some club mosses such as Lycopodium clavatum, sporangia are arranged in clusters called strobili.

    Phylum Monilophyta: Class Equisetopsida (Horsetails)

    Horsetails, whisk ferns, and ferns belong to the phylum Monilophyta, with horsetails placed in the Class Equisetopsida. The single extant genus Equisetum is the survivor of a large group of plants, which produced large trees, shrubs, and vines in the swamp forests in the Carboniferous. The plants are usually found in damp environments and marshes.

    The stem of a horsetail is characterized by the presence of joints or nodes, hence the old name Arthrophyta (arthro- = “joint”; -phyta = “plant”). Leaves and branches come out as whorls from the evenly-spaced joints. The needle-shaped leaves do not contribute greatly to photosynthesis, the majority of which takes place in the green stem.


    Leaves of a horsetail: The whorls of green structures at the joints are actually stems. The leaves are barely noticeable as brown rings just above each joint. Horsetails were once used as scrubbing brushes and so were called scouring rushes.

    Silica collects in the epidermal cells, contributing to the stiffness of horsetail plants. Underground stems known as rhizomes anchor the plants to the ground. Modern-day horsetails are homosporous and produce bisexual gametophytes.

    Phylum Monilophyta: Class Psilotopsida (Whisk Ferns)

    While most ferns form large leaves and branching roots, the whisk ferns, Class Psilotopsida, lack both roots and leaves, which were probably lost by reduction. Photosynthesis takes place in their green stems; small yellow knobs form at the tip of the branch stem and contain the sporangia. Whisk ferns were considered an early pterophytes. However, recent comparative DNA analysis suggests that this group may have lost both leaves and roots through evolution and is more closely related to ferns.

    Phylum Monilophyta: Class Polypodiopsida (Ferns)

    With their large fronds, ferns are the most-readily recognizable seedless vascular plants. More than 20,000 species of ferns live in environments ranging from tropics to temperate forests. Although some species survive in dry environments, most ferns are restricted to moist, shaded places. Ferns made their appearance in the fossil record during the Devonian period and expanded during the Carboniferous.

    The dominant stage of the life cycle of a fern is the sporophyte, which typically consists of large compound leaves called fronds. Fronds fulfill a double role; they are photosynthetic organs that also carry reproductive structure. The stem may be buried underground as a rhizome from which adventitious roots grow to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, or they may grow above ground as a trunk in tree ferns. Adventitious organs are those that grow in unusual places, such as roots growing from the side of a stem. Most ferns produce the same type of spores and are, therefore, homosporous. The diploid sporophyte is the most conspicuous stage of the life cycle. On the underside of its mature fronds, sori (singular, sorus) form as small clusters where sporangia develop. Sporangia in a sorus produce spores by meiosis and release them into the air. Those that land on a suitable substrate germinate and form a heart-shaped gametophyte, which is attached to the ground by thin filamentous rhizoids. The inconspicuous gametophyte harbors both sex gametangia. Flagellated sperm are released and swim on a wet surface to where the egg is fertilized. The newly-formed zygote grows into a sporophyte that emerges from the gametophyte, growing by mitosis into the next generation sporophyte.


    Sori on a fern frond: Sori appear as small bumps on the underside of a fern frond.