Plant Classification, Anatomy, & Function

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Answers to the Practice Items

'In Your Neighborhood' Activities



Classifying or grouping plants into categories is an important aspect of ornamental horticulture. Classifications allow people to compare or contrast various characteristics (features) of plants and to organize how plants will be used in the landscape. Plants can be classified in various ways—by their anatomy, use, life cycle (time between generations), and temperature tolerance.



The anatomy (or morphology or form) of plants can be used to classify plants. Land plants (terrestrial plants or terraphytes) all have anatomical characteristics in common—such as, leaves, stems, and roots. But, there also are differences in how the various plant parts are arranged and function. Plants are classified most often on reproductive (flower) characteristics as opposed to vegetative (leaf, stem) characteristics. This has become customary since reproductive parts (petals, sepals, stamens, pistils) remain relatively unchanged over diverse environments, whereas vegetative parts tend to change depending on the environment in which they grow. The two basic groups in which terrestrial plants are placed are the angiosperms and gymnosperms.




angio = case, vessel or capsule + sperm = seed

This is the group or class of plants characterized by conspicuous flowers and fruits that enclose seeds.




gymno = naked + sperm = seed

This is the group or class of plants characterized by inconspicuous flowers and fruits with exposed seeds. Conifers (pine trees) are good examples and show the typical gymnosperm fruit (pine cone).






Some Uses of Plants

Of course, plants are used for many different purposes—for example for food, to enhance or improve our environment, or for aesthetic reasons.

Edible plants

One could classify edible plants as vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

Environmental enhancement

One also could classify plants according to how they affect our living and working environments, to provide:

shade - temperature effects

a windbreak - wind velocity effect




a screen - for privacy







Plants also could be classified according to aesthetic characteristics:

flowering plants, trees and shrubs

container-grown plants


pot chrysanthemums


cut flowers

foliage plants


Life cycle—Generation time

The life cycle or generation time of plants is defined as that length of time required for a plant to go from seed to seed. While humans measure this with "time," plants respond to changes in the environment in which they grow (e.g. temperature, light, and daylength).


These are plants requiring one year (growing season)or less to go from seed to seed. Once seeds are produced, the plant producing them dies. Generally, annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season ("time" from the last spring frost to the first fall frost)




These are plants requiring two years (growing seasons) to go from seed to seed. The plant producing the seeds dies.







Perennials produce seeds each year and the plant producing the seeds remains intact for many years. Some perennials are 'herbaceous' which means they die back to their roots sometime after producing new seeds, but re-appear the next season. Other perennials are 'woody' in nature with above-ground stems (and often leaves) remaining and increasing in number through several growing seasons.

Temperature tolerance

Temperature plays a major role in the development and evolution of plants. Plants have developed various ways of adapting to the environments in which they grow. For example, temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical areas of the world are characterized by certain minimum and maximum temperatures.




Being able to know and name the various anatomical parts of plants is an important skill for the ornamental horticulturist. All the parts of plants and the myriad variations have specific names or terms associated with them. The most prominent and visible parts of plants are above ground; however, the below-ground parts of plants perform important functions.

Above-ground plant parts

Flower - inflorescence

The flower (or 'inflorescence' if many flowers are attached to one another) is the reproductive part of the plant and may have male and/or female reproductive organs. A female flower has a pistil made up of a stigma, style and ovary or many ovules. A male flower has a stamen made up of an anther and supporting filament. Male flowers may have many individual stamens. Pollen is produced in the anther. Individual flowers are supported by pedicels and if they are arranged into an inflorescence, they are supported by a peduncle. The pistil and stamen are usually surrounded by one or more petals and one or more sepals. Petals are usually brightly colored and arranged to attract pollinating insects, birds or other animals. Sepals are usually green. All the petals taken together are the corolla and all the sepals are the calyx. Petal comes from the Latin word "petalum" meaning "leaf" and corolla comes from the Latin "corona" meaning "garland". Sepal comes from the New Latin word "sepalum" meaning "covering petal" and calyx comes from the Latin "calix" meaning "cup".

Here is a 'perfect' flower, meaning it has both male and female flower parts. Click on the picture to practice identifying the parts of a flower.








Plants form many different kinds and shapes of fruit including berries (grape, orange), hips (rose) and drupes (cherry, peach). Fruits of angiosperms are usually fleshy enclosing one or more seeds of the plant. In the examples below, you need not memorize the different parts of the fruits, but see if you can identify where the flower parts went as the fruits formed!


Apical meristem - growing point

Meristems, in general, are the most rapidly growing parts of the plant. The cells in the meristem are rapidly dividing, forming news cells that will develop into specific tissues and ultimately into organs. The shoot apical meristem is the origin of new leaves, stem tissue and flowers. The term apical meristem comes from the Latin "apic" meaning "apex" and the Greek "meristos" meaning "divided".






Axillary bud

Axillary buds are formed in the axils (i.e., upper angles) between stems and leaves. When these buds begin to grow they eventually form the plant's branches. Axillary buds contain an axillary meristem that had its origins in the apical meristem.



Leaves make up the vast majority of the above-ground volume and surface area of most plants. They are usually green in color due to chlorophyll-containing cells; however, at various times of the year, as changes take place in the leaf's chlorophyll content, they can "turn" yellow, orange, red, violet, or brown. A leaf is attached to the stem by its petiole.

A 'leaf' is defined by the location of the axillary bud at its connection to the stem. To determine where the stem ends and the leaf begins, one must identify where the axillary bud is. If there is no axillary bud present in the junction between the stem and petiole, the leaf is known as a leaflet and is part of a compound leaf. Below is a compound leaf composed of many leaflets. You would not find an axillary bud at the base of any of the leaflets. The diagram above is of a simple leaf since the blade is not divided into separate leaflets.



Node and Internode

Along the stem, each location with an axillary bud is a node. The stem tissue between nodes is the internode. Distance between nodes is a characteristic unique to each plant and can be influenced by the environment, horticultural management, and growing conditions of the plant.







Vascular tissue

Water from the soil and sugars formed through photosynthesis in the leaves must move throughout the plant. The vascular (conducting) tissue is comprised of specialized cells for the movement of water and nutrients. Water (and dissolved mineral nutrients) moves throughout the plant through the xylem (from the Greek "xulon" meaning "wood"). It is actually an organized system of small-diameter, dead cells resulting in a series of capillary tubes where water moves under adhesive and cohesive forces. Sugars and other organic compounds move throughout the plant via the phloem (from the Greek "phloios" meaning "bark"), a complex network of specialized living cells. The development of a vascular system is what separates land plants from many ferns and aquatic plants and was an important evolutionary step to insure that plants would successfully "colonize" the land masses on Earth.


Below-ground plant parts

Root system

The root system originates from an apical meristem (root apical meristem) similar to the shoot apical meristem. The major differences are that the root apical meristem responds positively to gravitropic forces (it grows downward), whereas the shoot apical meristem responds negatively to gravity (and grows upward). The root apical meristem does not form axillary buds in the axils of branches. It is protected from the harsh soil environment by a covering root cap. Many root cells develop specialized cell walls called root hairs. This increases the surface area of the root thus increasing the uptake of water and soil-borne nutrients.





Root Systems

Root systems can have many branches (fibrous roots) or have few, if any, branches (e.g., tap roots in seedlings).

Roots that form on parts of the plant where they are not expected (e.g., on a stem or leaf) are called adventitious roots. Examples of these include brace roots of corn and aerial roots on branches of English Ivy.



Modified below-ground stems


Stolons, or runners, are modified stems that grow horizontally at or just below ground level. Plants with stolons include strawberry and bermuda grass.




Rhizomes are modified, thickened stems that grow horizontally below ground. They root at nodes. Plants with rhizomes include iris, canna, and banana.





Tubers are enlarged, fleshy, underground stems, often with prominent axillary buds. Potatoes are tubers and the "eyes" are the axillary buds.














Bulbs are highly compressed, underground stems with fleshy leaves called scales. Plants with bulbs include Easter lilies, tulips, onions, and daffodils.










Corms are short, solid, vertical, enlarged, underground stems containing undeveloped leaf and flower buds. Gladiolus, crocus, and freesia are plants that grow from corms.






Functions of plant organs


Flowers (and inflorescences) function in reproduction of the plant. Plants may have flowers that are all male or all female (called 'dioecious' meaning two houses or dwellings) or they may have flowers of both sexes on a single plant (monoecious).




Leaves are made up of cells that contain the green pigment, chlorophyll. Because of this pigment, leaves are the primary location where photosynthesis takes place. Leaves also have specialized surface cells that permit carbon dioxide in (for photosynthesis) and water vapor out. The evaporation of water from leaves is their primary method of temperature regulation (evaporating water cools the leaf) and is known as transpiration. 

Below is a diagram of the Process of Photosynthesis. Get familiar with the basic functions and players.


















Stems support the plant, provide a system (xylem) for the transport of water and nutrients, contain growing points (an apical meristem and axillary buds), and develop protective tissues (bark).






Roots serve several functions. They anchor the plant, take up water from the soil, absorb nutrients from the soil, and can serve as storage organs.










Congratulations! That completes this chapter. You may want to take a break, then try the Practice test and then check the Answers. Practice identifying features of plants around your home, on campus, and in town. For ideas, look at the 'In Your Neighborhood' Activities.