Evolution of Land Plants

Photo shows a rock marbled brown and black with multiple indentations and irregular, pockmarked features containing fossilized corms and rhizoids. A circle appears around a few large features to indicate the fossilized corms.
Early vascular plant fossils. This Rhynie chert (a) contains fossilized material from vascular plants. Reconstruction of Cooksonia (b), the plant forms inside the circle. (credit b: modification of work by Peter Coxhead based on original image by “Smith609”/Wikimedia Commons; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

No discussion of the evolution of plants on land can be undertaken without a brief review of the timeline of the geological eras. The early era, known as the Paleozoic, is divided into six periods. It starts with the Cambrian period, followed by the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian. The major event to mark the Ordovician, more than 500 million years ago, was the colonization of land by the ancestors of modern land plants. Fossilized cells, cuticles, and spores of early land plants have been dated as far back as the Ordovician period in the early Paleozoic era. The oldest-known vascular plants have been identified in deposits from the Devonian. One of the richest sources of information is the Rhynie chert, a sedimentary rock deposit found in Rhynie, Scotland, where embedded fossils of some of the earliest vascular plants have been identified.

Paleobotanists distinguish between extinct species, as fossils, and extant species, which are still living. The extinct vascular plants most probably lacked true leaves and roots and formed low vegetation mats similar in size to modern-day mosses, although some could reach one meter in height. The later genus Cooksonia, which flourished during the Silurian, has been extensively studied from well-preserved examples. Imprints of Cooksonia show slender branching stems ending in what appear to be sporangia. From the recovered specimens, it is not possible to establish for certain whether Cooksonia possessed vascular tissues. Fossils indicate that by the end of the Devonian period, ferns, horsetails, and seed plants populated the landscape, giving rising to trees and forests. This luxuriant vegetation helped enrich the atmosphere with oxygen, making it easier for air-breathing animals to colonize dry land. Plants also established early symbiotic relationships with fungi, creating mycorrhizae: a relationship in which the fungal network of filaments increases the efficiency of the plant root system, and the plants provide the fungi with byproducts of photosynthesis.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e