Putting It Together: Plant Structure and Function

think about It

Let’s think back to the beginning of the module: we mentioned that many plants have evolved to thrive in conditions that limit their access to light, nutrients, and oxygen. Can you think of any adaptations that would help plants in these situations?

Before you move on to the examples of adaptations, take some time to record your thoughts here:

In tropical rainforests, light is often scarce, since many trees and plants grow close together and block much of the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Many tropical plant species have exceptionally broad leaves to maximize the capture of sunlight. Other species are epiphytes: plants that grow on other plants that serve as a physical support. Such plants are able to grow high up in the canopy atop the branches of other trees, where sunlight is more plentiful. Epiphytes live on rain and minerals collected in the branches and leaves of the supporting plant. Bromeliads (members of the pineapple family), ferns, and orchids are examples of tropical epiphytes (Figure 1). Many epiphytes have specialized tissues that enable them to efficiently capture and store water.

Photo shows long, thin brown leaves of Spanish moss hanging down from the branches of a large oak tree.

Figure 1. One of the most well known bromeliads is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), seen here in an oak tree. (credit: Kristine Paulus)

Some plants have special adaptations that help them to survive in nutrient-poor environments. Carnivorous plants, such as the Venus flytrap and the pitcher plant (Figure 2), grow in bogs where the soil is low in nitrogen. In these plants, leaves are modified to capture insects. The insect-capturing leaves may have evolved to provide these plants with a supplementary source of much-needed nitrogen.

 Left photo shows modified leaves of a Venus flytrap. The two leaves resemble the upper and lower part of the mouth, and are red on the interior. Hair-like appendages, like teeth, frame each modified leaf, so that when the leaves close, the insect will be trapped. Right photo shows three modified leaves of the pitcher plant, which are green tubes with red specks and have a red rim forming the top opening.

Figure 2. The (a) Venus flytrap has modified leaves that can capture insects. When an unlucky insect touches the trigger hairs inside the leaf, the trap suddenly closes. The opening of the (b) pitcher plant is lined with a slippery wax. Insects crawling on the lip slip and fall into a pool of water in the bottom of the pitcher, where they are digested by bacteria. The plant then absorbs the smaller molecules. (credit a: modification of work by Peter Shanks; credit b: modification of work by Tim Mansfield)

Watch Venus Flytraps: Jaws of Death, an extraordinary BBC close-up of the Venus flytrap in action.

Many swamp plants have adaptations that enable them to thrive in wet areas, where their roots grow submerged underwater. In these aquatic areas, the soil is unstable and little oxygen is available to reach the roots. Trees such as mangroves (Rhizophora sp.) growing in coastal waters produce aboveground roots that help support the tree (Figure 3). Some species of mangroves, as well as cypress trees, have pneumatophores: upward-growing roots containing pores and pockets of tissue specialized for gas exchange. Wild rice is an aquatic plant with large air spaces in the root cortex. The air-filled tissue—called aerenchyma—provides a path for oxygen to diffuse down to the root tips, which are embedded in oxygen-poor bottom sediments.

 Photo A shows mangrove trees with roots extending into the water. Part B shows cypress trees growing in the water, with upward-growing roots between the trees. Part C is a scanning electron micrograph showing a cross section of wild rice. The cells radiate from the center like spokes on a bicycle wheel, and are interspersed by large spaces that hold air.

Figure 3. The branches of (a) mangrove trees develop aerial roots, which descend to the ground and help to anchor the trees. (b) Cypress trees and some mangrove species have upward-growing roots called pneumatophores that are involved in gas exchange. Aquatic plants such as (c) wild rice have large spaces in the root cortex called aerenchyma, visualized here using scanning electron microscopy. (credit a: modification of work by Roberto Verzo; credit b: modification of work by Duane Burdick; credit c: modification of work by Robert R. Wise)


It is tempting to view different topics as completely separate, but in fact the ideas we cover in this course are often connected to one another. If you don’t retain the vocabulary from module to module, those connections can be missed. As you continue on, remember to come back and review the terms you’ve learned in order to increase your depth of knowledge.


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More