Life before Flowers

Most people forget that there are thousands of plants that don't produce flowers but instead reproduce using spores. Our Life Before Flowers house aims to display those plants living a less showy existence.

By Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Our Life before Flowers house is a hidden treasure which can be found to your left as you exit the eastern door of our Glasshouse range. After exploring the entrance on Street view, you can then have a relaxed look around the house before we introduce you to some of its treasures.

The Life before Flowers glasshouse

A hidden section of the Garden full of unique plants that grow in moist environments, relatives to now extinct giants that formed our dwindling fossil fuel reserves.

A slow pan across the Life before Flowers house

Around 470 million years ago, tiny plants growing on the edges of water bodies began to colonise the land. The closest living relatives to these plants are the Charophytes, which are aquatic freshwater algae.

Chara vulgaris (2019-11-11) by Hamish Symington Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Stonewort (Chara vulgaris)

This tiny alga, commonly known as a stonewort, is thought to be a direct ancestor to the first land plant. It's called a stonewort due to calcium deposits in its cell walls making it feel rough.

Liverworts, hornworts and mosses were some of the first land plants and have since diversified into an amazing variety of species. All still depend on a moist environment to reproduce, and grow close to the ground. Many species have amazing superpowers such as being able to absorb twenty times their weight in water.

Conocephalum conicum (2019-10-16) by Hamish Symington Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Snakeskin liverwort (Conocephalum conicum)

Leafy liverworts like this have a flattened structure upon which small egg or sperm producing structures develop. The air chambers in the leaf are clearly visible, separated by dark furrows, with a whitish air pore at the centre of each chamber.

Phaeoceros laevis (2019-10-17) Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Smooth Hornwort (Phaeoceros laevis)

"Ceros" is the latin word for horn, which describes the strange projections emerging from this plant. These are the reproductive structures that react to humidity to spread the spores around.

Polytrichum commune (2019-10-16) by Hamish Symington Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Hair moss (Polytrichum commune)

Mosses grow in damp, shady spots like the bottoms of trees, cracks in the pavement, or even in your garden lawn. Although we have a few species of moss growing at CUBG, we have lots of work to do to help conserve some of the 12 800 species growing worldwide.

As more and more plants started growing on the land, things got a bit crowded close to the ground and hence many invested in growing upwards. To get water and food from the soil and to beat gravity, they also needed a good plumbing system and so developed vessels, similar to your arteries and veins, to transport substances. These plants are sometimes known as Pteridophytes and include horsetails and ferns.

Huperzia phlegmaria (2019-08-21) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Club moss (Huperzia phlegmaria)

Despite its common name, this species is not a moss, but a lycophyte. It has vascular tissue but still reproduces using spores. These spores, when dried out, form a highly flammable powder once used in fireworks and flash powders for photography.

Equisetum hyemale (2019-10-16) by Hamish Symington Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Rough Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale)

Horsetails have cylindrical stems with small whorls of leaves at joints along the stem.  It spreads aggressively via underground runners. The spores of this plant have amazing adaptations to facilitate dispersal. Tiny leg like appendages react to humidity allowing them to walk.

Psilotum nudum (2019-08-19) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Whisk Fern (Psilotum nudum)

Although it does not look like it, this species is in fact a fern. It lacks roots and is epiphytic, growing on other plants and obtaining water and nutrients from air, rain, and debris around it. 

We hope you enjoyed this short introduction to some of the plants in our Life Before Flowers House. If you would like to learn more about plant evolution, our Plant Evolution Trail will introduce you to the land plant family tree. To finish off, here is a lovely poem about moss.

Moss on a Wall

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