Millions of years ago, plants were the foundation of life as we know it today. Many of these plants went extinct as the environment changed, animals evolved, and the planet grew older. Some plants simply evolved with the changing times, and others – through one circumstance or another – simply persisted.
In this article from HerbSpeak, you’ll learn more about which of these ancient plants are still around today, learning a little bit more about the planet we live on.
What Did the First Plants Look Like?
When looking for the first plants, many botanists must partner with archaeologists to unearth fossilized records of plants that no longer exist. As botany is fairly central to our life on Earth, it’s not uncommon for it to cross disciplines with other sciences, especially in the field.
You might be surprised to learn that many of the plants you think of – like trees, flowers, and any seed plant – were not the first to evolve on land, and these modern “higher” plants look nothing like what the first plants did.
So what did the first plants look like? Mosses and liverworts provide the best examples.
As the first plants evolved, they journeyed from the sea to land; many of them had simplified, semi-aquatic leaves that were built to capture sunlight without maintaining too much rigidity.
Bearing seeds was not only unnecessary but a waste of energy for plants that lived aquatically. These plants instead produced through spores or fragmentation.
When these plants journeyed onto land, however, the environment was inhospitable to them, so they had to adapt. Many stayed short, as they lacked the ability to send water to the top efficiently (which is done with the help of a xylem, in higher plants.)
These plants also needed the advantage of retaining as much moisture as possible to avoid drying out, but the atmosphere, which was rich in carbon dioxide, made it too good of an environment to pass up.
What Are Ancient Plants Called?
Before flowering plants, there were a group of primitive plants that first colonized the land. This group of plants is called Pteridophytes, meaning essentially: fern-plants.
Similarly, Bryophytes were some of the first to colonize land as well, and this belongs to moss and hornworts, and formerly liverworts. Plants of a similar structure to moss is algae, which belongs to the kingdom Protista, rather than Plantae.
What Is the Oldest Plant on Earth?
Ferns, mosses, liverworts, and hornworts are among some of the oldest plants on terrestrial land, though aquatic prehistoric plants are much older; these plants, like single-celled photosynthetic organisms, algae, and other plants, are presumed to be the basic life forms of plants before they began to colonize land.
The oldest living plant on Earth is known as “Pando”, a colony of quaking aspens in Utah. While individual trees may fall, the colony is clonal, meaning is it all genetically the same. Researchers estimate that the colony is over 80 thousand years old, though they aren’t certain if Pando might really be older than that.
The oldest known once-living organism is a bristlecone pine, known as the Prometheus tree, that was aged at 5,000 years old after being cut down in 1964. Graduate student Donal Currey’s dendrology tool – designed to bore into the wood and measure how old the tree is – got stuck in the pine during his research. (1)
Though members of the scientific community and press were outraged that the tree was killed, Currey’s mistake ultimately provided the impetus to establish Great Basin National Park to protect the bristlecones. The death of the Prometheus tree also helped to change our larger perception of trees as an infinitely replenishing resource.
After multiple 28-inch borers were lost in the tree, he still couldn’t assess the tree’s age, so he gained permission from both the national and local forest service to fell the tree with help. This request was approved, but no one thought they would fell what would become the Prometheus tree.
The story is rather tragic, for the tree, but also for Currey who didn’t know how old it was at the time either. You don’t get into a field like this without having a passion for the life of plants, and that event was the striking moment where many people began to realize that trees were not actually an easily-replenished resource.
(Highlight) What Are the Most Ancient Plants?
Below are some of the most ancient plants on Earth that still exist today, though many ancient plant species are threatened or critically endangered due to human expansion, deforestation, and a changing climate.
Uses: Food, herbal remedy
Status: Many species Endangered
Horsetails are especially fascinating plants that are comprised of simple vascular tissues but reproduces via spores. These plants typically live in wetlands or moist environments and are critical in providing habitat and food to smaller aquatic organisms.
While these plants are commonly considered the weeds of the wetlands, in ancient Rome, horsetails were used as a medicinal poultice to help stop wounds from bleeding and encourage healing.
It is the only surviving genus of plants in the class Equisetopsida, with only around 15 species remaining. The other genus in this class have only been discovered as fossilized remains.
Uses: Herbal remedy for liver-related ailments,
Status: Threatened, endangered
This moisture-loving plant is considered to be one of the earliest plants to have made its way onto land according to fossil records and estimations. The flat, primitive structure of liverworts is perfect for colonizing the landmass from an aquatic state, and these plants reproduce via sporogenesis.
In the medieval times, many cultures believed that liverworts could cure jaundice and other liver-related ailment because of the liver-shaped lobes, following the historical belief that the plant’s shape gave one clues to its medicinal properties.
These plants were once considered bryophytes, along with mosses, but their taxonomy was recently revised to place them in another division based on newly-discovered phylogeny.
Environment: Moist, shady surfaces
Uses: Baby-rearing, feminine hygiene, home decoration, fuel, gardening, wound care, and more
Status: Popularly considered threatened or endangered
These slow-growing, low-lying plants are non-vascular and reproduce via spores. Considered to be some of the first types of plants to colonize land, they have a unique way of curling and drying with insufficient moisture, going into stasis only to be revived within minutes of contact with water.
They provide important sources of food, shelter, and moisture for smaller organisms. The micro-forests of moss attach to rock, wood, and soil depending on the species and help control soil erosion, as well as regulate nutrient and water economy in the local area.
Despite thousands of moss species identified, only a handful of mosses have a common name. This leaves many everyday people unaware of the benefit mosses provide to the ecosystem, and how threatened their continued existence is, despite the long, intertwined history it has with helping humankind survive.
Environment: Moist, shady, warm soils
Uses: Herbal remedy, food, ornamental, soil remediation
Status: Invasive (some species), endangered (some species)
Many ferns are considered ancient or prehistoric. This includes the staghorn fern or bird’s nest fern that is commonly found in many houseplant nurseries. Some species are toxic, while others are popular foragables, making an excellent range of food and ornamental plants alike.
While ferns are beneficial in soil remediation, they are considered invasive in some areas and threaten native species if left uncontrolled as those species will form monocultures, removing biodiversity in hyperlocal environments.
Uses: Herbal remedy, basket weaving,
Status: Critically endangered
While many parts of the cycad were historically used as herbal remedies, the seeds of some species were also occasionally used as a famine food, though most species have toxic compounds.
Cycads also include species that are highly toxic to humans and animals, such as the popular Sago palm. These plants grow slowly, but thanks to that slow growth, they are also known to survive for hundreds of years in the wild, if not longer.
These gymnosperm plants were thought to be around during the same time as dinosaurs, and are popularly depicted in the same illustrations.
Environment: Boreal, temperate regions
Uses: Softwood timber, paint, solvents, oils, herbal remedies
Status: Some species threatened
Conifers include trees like Yew, which is an ideal choice for firewood and construction, as well as Agathis, which is used to create resins and gums important in various types of wood construction.
This also includes the Wollemi Pine, of which fewer than 100 individuals still exist, all of which are located in New South Wales, Australia.
This collection of gymnosperm plants provides an estimate of 45% of the global lumber production annual, though a potentially more important historical use is pine needle teas, which provide a vital source of vitamin C that is useful for fighting scurvy in sailing communities and throughout the winter.
If these trees are attacked by a burrowing insect or cut, they have the to cover the affected area in a gummy resin, similar to how a wound clots and scabs in mammals. The resin produces a scent that acts as a deterrent for further damage by curious insects.
Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia spp.)
Uses: Childbirth aid, shelter for beneficial insects, ornamental
Status: Threatened locally in some regions
With a similar flower structure to many carnivorous plants, this pit does not digest its prey; rather, it attracts flies into the inner pipe and covers them in pollen before they can escape.
Historically used for medicinal benefit, many of these plants have since been found to contain poisonous compounds, relegating them to ornamental and pollinator plants only.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo Biloba)
Environment: Temperate, moist
Uses: Herbal remedy, climate remediation
Often called a living fossil, this tree is the only surviving species of its genus. The tree has leaves unlike any other modern species, potentially evidence of a more primitive leaf type which later evolved into the parallel venation found in monocots.
Ginkgo retains another primitive aspect found in some bryophytes and ferns – when this tree fruits, the sperm inside is motile, meaning it swims to the ovary. Most modern plants must carry pollen to the ovary through a slow, manual growth towards the ovary.
Though extinct in the wild, it is still around as an ornamental tree. It is thought that either Buddhist or Taoist monks cultivated this tree in monasteries, which preserved its lineage and saved it from extinction.
Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
Uses: Herbal remedy, pest repellent, spice
Status: Least concern
Various species of pepper exist, however, Piper nigrum is the most commonly utilized plant today, producing both black and white peppercorns.
Fossilized record of this plant allows researchers to estimate it is one of the oldest surviving vascular plants to survive several periods, and one of the few to do so without becoming an endangered or threatened species.
This plant is likely considered of least concern because it is a spice crop still readily used in kitchens across the globe today.
Water Chestnut (Trapa natans)
Uses: Food for ecosystem, herbal remedy
Status: Endangered in some countries
Also known as the water caltrop, this aquatic plant floats along the surface of the water and produces unique-looking pods which contain edible seeds. These seeds were historically utilized as a famine food; however, few are eaten in modern times as they easily absorb heavy metals from the water. Today, this plant only provides food to local ecosystem fish and wildlife.
While many fossilized species have been discovered, only three species remain: Trapa natans, T. bicornis, and T. rossica. Some countries list this plant as endangered, while others consider it invasive.
Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis)
Environment: Arid desert
Uses: Hydration source for local fauna, historic famine food
This fascinating plant is considered one of the longest-lived plants as they are a single pair of broad, flat leaves. Each leaf lays flat against the sand to withstand even the strongest winds. Larger individual specimens have been estimated to be 2,000 years old.
Welwitschia can be grown outside of desert-like conditions, but it is endemic to the Namib desert, which is one of the planet’s oldest and most arid environments. This location receives no rainfall, however, fog provides critical sources of moisture as the plant is solely found natively within the coastal fog belt.
The rigid leaves’ stomata only open in fog, and close tightly once the fog lifts and the air grows hotter to prevent moisture from escaping.