Stems are a part of the shoot system of a plant. They may range in length from a few millimeters to hundreds of meters, and also vary in diameter, depending on the plant type. Stems are usually above ground, although the stems of some plants, such as the potato, also grow underground. Stems may be herbaceous (soft) or woody in nature. Their main function is to provide support to the plant, holding leaves, flowers and buds; in some cases, stems also store food for the plant. A stem may be unbranched, like that of a palm tree, or it may be highly branched, like that of a magnolia tree. The stem of the plant connects the roots to the leaves, helping to transport absorbed water and minerals to different parts of the plant. It also helps to transport the products of photosynthesis, namely sugars, from the leaves to the rest of the plant.
Plant stems, whether above or below ground, are characterized by the presence of nodes and internodes (Figure 1). Nodes are points of attachment for leaves, aerial roots, and flowers. The stem region between two nodes is called an internode. The stalk that extends from the stem to the base of the leaf is the petiole. An axillary bud is usually found in the axil—the area between the base of a leaf and the stem—where it can give rise to a branch or a flower. The apex (tip) of the shoot contains the apical meristem within the apical bud.
The stem and other plant organs arise from the ground tissue, and are primarily made up of simple tissues formed from three types of cells: parenchyma, collenchyma, and sclerenchyma cells.
Parenchyma cells are the most common plant cells (Figure 2). They are found in the stem, the root, the inside of the leaf, and the pulp of the fruit. Parenchyma cells are responsible for metabolic functions, such as photosynthesis, and they help repair and heal wounds. Some parenchyma cells also store starch. In Figure 2, we see the central pith (greenish-blue, in the center) and peripheral cortex (narrow zone 3–5 cells thick just inside the epidermis); both are composed of parenchyma cells. Vascular tissue composed of xylem (red) and phloem tissue (green, between the xylem and cortex) surrounds the pith.
Collenchyma cells are elongated cells with unevenly thickened walls (Figure 3). They provide structural support, mainly to the stem and leaves. These cells are alive at maturity and are usually found below the epidermis. The “strings” of a celery stalk are an example of collenchyma cells.
Sclerenchyma cells also provide support to the plant, but unlike collenchyma cells, many of them are dead at maturity. There are two types of sclerenchyma cells: fibers and sclereids. Both types have secondary cell walls that are thickened with deposits of lignin, an organic compound that is a key component of wood. Fibers are long, slender cells; sclereids are smaller-sized. Sclereids give pears their gritty texture. Humans use sclerenchyma fibers to make linen and rope (Figure 4).
Which layers of the stem are made of parenchyma cells?
- cortex and pith
Some plant species have modified stems that are especially suited to a particular habitat and environment (Figure 5). A rhizome is a modified stem that grows horizontally underground and has nodes and internodes. Vertical shoots may arise from the buds on the rhizome of some plants, such as ginger and ferns. Corms are similar to rhizomes, except they are more rounded and fleshy (such as in gladiolus). Corms contain stored food that enables some plants to survive the winter. Stolons are stems that run almost parallel to the ground, or just below the surface, and can give rise to new plants at the nodes. Runners are a type of stolon that runs above the ground and produces new clone plants at nodes at varying intervals: strawberries are an example. Tubers are modified stems that may store starch, as seen in the potato (Solanum sp.). Tubers arise as swollen ends of stolons, and contain many adventitious or unusual buds (familiar to us as the “eyes” on potatoes). A bulb, which functions as an underground storage unit, is a modification of a stem that has the appearance of enlarged fleshy leaves emerging from the stem or surrounding the base of the stem, as seen in the iris.
Watch botanist Wendy Hodgson, of Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, explain how agave plants were cultivated for food hundreds of years ago in the Arizona desert in this video: Finding the Roots of an Ancient Crop.
Some aerial modifications of stems are tendrils and thorns (Figure 6). Tendrils are slender, twining strands that enable a plant (like a vine or pumpkin) to seek support by climbing on other surfaces. Thorns are modified branches appearing as sharp outgrowths that protect the plant; common examples include roses, Osage orange and devil’s walking stick.