Ancient Plants / Being a Simple Account of the past Vegetation of the Earth and of the Recent Important Discoveries Made in This Realm of Nature

Ancient Plants / Being a Simple Account of the past Vegetation of the Earth and of the Recent Important Discoveries Made in This Realm of Nature

Marie Carmichael Stopes
Marie Carmichael Stopes

Author: Stopes, Marie Carmichael, 1880-1958
Ancient Plants
Being a Simple Account of the past Vegetation of the Earth and of the Recent Important Discoveries Made in This Realm of Nature


Photo. of the specimen in Manchester Museum. THE STUMP OF A LEPIDODENDRON FROM THE COAL MEASURES



Lecturer in Fossil Botany, Manchester University
Author of “The Study of Plant Life for Young People”



The number and the importance of the discoveries which have been made in the course of the last five or six years in the realm of Fossil Botany have largely altered the aspect of the subject and greatly widened its horizon. Until comparatively recent times the rather narrow outlook and the technical difficulties of the study made it one which could only be appreciated by specialists. This has been gradually changed, owing to the detailed anatomical work which it was found possible to do on the carboniferous plants, and which proved to be of great botanical importance. About ten years ago textbooks in English were written, and the subject was included in the work of the honours students of Botany at the Universities. To-day the important bearing of the results of this branch of Science on several others, as well as its intrinsic value, is so much greater, that anyone who is at all acquainted with general science, and more particularly with Botany and Geology, must find much to interest him in it.
There is no book in the English language which places this really attractive subject before the non-specialist, and to do so is the aim of the present volume. The two excellent English books which we possess, viz. Seward’s Fossil Plants (of which the first volume only has appeared, and that ten years ago) and Scott’s Studies in Fossil Botany, are ideal for advanced University students. But they are written for students who are supposed to have a previous knowledge of technical botany, and prove very hard or impossible reading for those who are merely acquainted with Science in a general way, or for less advanced students.
The inclusion of fossil types in the South Kensington syllabus for Botany indicates the increasing importance attached to palæobotany, and as vital facts about several of those types are not to be found in a simply written book, the students preparing for the examination must find some difficulty in getting their information. Furthermore, Scott’s book, the only up-to-date one, does not give a complete survey of the subject, but just selects the more important families to describe in detail.
Hence the present book was attempted for the double purpose of presenting the most interesting discoveries and general conclusions of recent years, and bringing together the subject as a whole.
The mass of information which has been collected about fossil plants is now enormous, and the greatest difficulty in writing this little book has been the necessity of eliminating much that is of great interest. The author awaits with fear and trembling the criticisms of specialists, who will probably find that many things considered by them as particularly interesting or essential have been left out. It is hoped that they will bear in mind the scope and aim of the book. I try to present only the structure raised on the foundation of the accumulated details of specialists’ work, and not to demonstrate brick by brick the exposed foundation.
Though the book is not written specially for them, it is probable that University students may find it useful as a general survey of the whole subject, for there is much in it that can only be learned otherwise by reference to innumerable original monographs.
In writing this book all possible sources of information have been consulted, and though Scott’s Studies[1] naturally formed the foundation of some of the chapters on Pteridophytes, the authorities for all the general part and the recent discoveries are the numerous memoirs published by many different learned societies here and abroad.
As these pages are primarily for the use of those who have no very technical preliminary training, the simplest language possible which is consistent with a concise style has always been adopted. The necessary technical terms are either explained in the context or in the glossary at the end of the book. The list of the more important authorities makes no pretence of including all the references that might be consulted with advantage, but merely indicates the more important volumes and papers which anyone should read who wishes to follow up the subject.
All the illustrations are made for the book itself, and I am much obliged to Mr. D. M. S. Watson, B.Sc., for the microphotos of plant anatomy which adorn its pages. The figures and diagram are my own work.
This book is dedicated to college students, to the senior pupils of good schools where the subject is beginning to find a place in the higher courses of Botany, but especially to all those who take an interest in plant evolution because it forms a thread in the web of life whose design they wish to trace.
December, 1909.


Chap. Page
I. Introductory 1
II. Various Kinds of Fossil Plants 6
III. Coal, the most Important of Plant Remains 22
IV. The Seven Ages of Plant Life 33
V. Stages in Plant Evolution 43
VI. Minute Structure of Fossil Plants
Likenesses to Living Ones 53
VII. Differences from Living Ones 69
VIII. Past Histories of Plant Families
(i) Flowering Plants 79
IX. (ii) Higher Gymnosperms 86
X. (iii) Bennettitales 102
XI. (iv) The Cycads 109
XII. (v) Pteridosperms 114
XIII. (vi) The Ferns 124
XIV. (vii) The Lycopods 133
XV. (viii) The Horsetails 145
XVI. (ix) Sphenophyllales 153
XVII. (x) The Lower Plants 161
XVIII. Fossil Plants as Records of Ancient Countries 168
XIX. Conclusion 174
I. List of Requirements for a Collecting Expedition 183
II. Treatment of Specimens 184
III. Literature 186
Glossary 188
Footnotes 193
Index 193



The lore of the plants which have successively clothed this ancient earth during the thousands of centuries before men appeared is generally ignored or tossed on one side with a contemptuous comment on the dullness and “dryness” of fossil botany.
It is true that all that remains of the once luxuriant vegetation are fragments preserved in stone, fragments which often show little of beauty or value to the untrained eye; but nevertheless these fragments can tell a story of great interest when once we have the clue to their meaning.
The plants which lived when the world was young were not the same as those which live to-day, yet they filled much the same place in the economy of nature, and were as vitally important to the animals then depending on them as are the plants which are now indispensable to man. To-day the life of the modern plants interests many people, and even philosophers have examined the structure of their bodies and have pondered over the great unanswered questions of the cause and the course of their evolution. But all the plants which are now alive are the descendants of those which lived a few years ago, and those again came down through generation after generation from the plants which inhabited the world before the races of men existed. If, therefore, we wish to know and understand the vegetation living to-day we must look into the past histories of the families of plants, and there is no way to do this at once so simple and so direct (in theory) as to examine the remains of the plants which actually lived in that past. Yet when we come to do this practically we encounter many difficulties, which have discouraged all but enthusiasts from attempting the study hitherto, but which in reality need not dismay us.
When Lindley and Hutton, in 1831, began to publish their classical book The Fossil Flora of Great Britain, they could give but isolated fragments of information concerning the fossils they described, and the results of their work threw but little light on the theoretical problems of morphology and classification of living plants. Since then great advance has been made, and now the sum of our knowledge of the subject, though far from complete, is so considerable and has such a far-reaching influence that it is becoming the chief inspiration of several branches of modern botany. Of the many workers who have contributed to this stock of knowledge the foremost, as he was the pioneer in the investigations on modern lines, is Williamson, who was a professor at Manchester University, and whose monographs and specimens are classics to-day. Still living is Dr. Scott, whose greatness is scarcely less, as well as an ever-increasing number of specialists in this country, who are continually making discoveries. Abroad, the chief Continental names are Renault, Bertrand, Count Solms Laubach, Brongniart, Zeiller; and in America is Dr. Wieland; while there are innumerable other workers in the field who have deepened and widened the channels of information. The literature on fossil plants is now vast; so great that to give merely the names of the publications would fill a very large volume.
But, like the records left by the plants themselves, most of this literature is unreadable by any but specialists, and its really vital interest is enclosed in a petrifying medium of technicalities. It is to give their results in a more accessible form that the present volume has been written.
The actual plants that lived and died long ago have left either no trace of their form and character, or but imperfect fragments of some of their parts embedded in hard rock and often hidden deep in the earth. That such difficulties lie in our way should not discourage us from attempting to learn all the fossils can teach. Many an old manuscript which is torn and partly destroyed bears a record, the fragments of which are more interesting and important than a tale told by a complete new book. The very difficulty of the subject of fossil botany is in itself an incentive to study, and the obstacles to be surmounted before a view of the ancient plants can be seen increase the fascination of the journey.
The world of to-day has been nearly explored; but the world, or rather the innumerable world-phases of the past, lie before us practically unknown, bewilderingly enticing in their mystery. These untrodden regions are revealed to us only by the fossils lying scattered through the rocks at our feet, which give us the clues to guide us along an adventurous path.
Fables of flying dragons and wondrous sea monsters have been shown by the students of animal fossils to be no more marvellous than were the actual creatures which once inhabited the globe; and among the plants such wonderful monsters have their parallels in the floras of the past. The trees which are living to-day are very recent in comparison with the ancestors of the families of lowlier plants, and most of the modern forest trees have usurped a position which once belonged to the monster members of such families as the Lycopods and Equisetums, which are now humble and dwindling. An ancient giant of the past is seen in the frontispiece, and the great girth of its stem offers a striking contrast to the feeble trailing branches of its living relatives, the Club-mosses.

As we follow their histories we shall see how family after family has risen to dominate the forest, and has in its turn given place to a succeeding group. Some of the families that flourished long since have living descendants of dwarfed and puny growth, others have died out completely, so that their very existence would have been unsuspected had it not been revealed by their broken fragments entombed in the rocks.
From the study of the fossils, also, we can discover something of the course of the evolution of the different parts of the plant body, from the changes it has passed through in the countless ages of its existence. Just as the dominant animals of the past had bodies lacking in many of the characters which are most important to the living animals, so did the early plants differ from those around us to-day. It is the comparative study of living and fossil structures which throws the strongest light on the facts and factors of evolution.
When the study of fossil organisms goes into minute detail and embraces the fine subtleties of their internal structure, then the student of fossil plants has the advantage of the zoological observer, for in many of the fossil plants the cells themselves are petrified with a perfection that no fossil animal tissues have yet been found to approach. Under the microscope the most delicate of plant cells, the patterns on their walls, and sometimes even their nuclei can be recognized as clearly as if they were living tissues. The value of this is immense, because the external appearance of leaves and stems is often very deceptive, and only when both external appearance and internal structure are known can a real estimate of the character of the plant be made. In the following chapters a number of photographs taken through the microscope will show some of the cell structure from fossil plants. Such figures as fig. 11 and fig. 96, for example, illustrate the excellence of preservation which is often found in petrified plant tissues. Indeed, the microscope becomes an essential part of the equipment of a fossil botanist; as it is to a student of living plants. But for those who are not intending to specialize on the subject micro-photographs will illustrate sufficient detail, while in most modern museums some excellently preserved specimens are exhibited which show their structure if examined with a magnifying glass.
We recognize to-day the effect the vegetation of a district has on its scenery, even on its more fundamental nature; and we see how the plants keep in close harmony with the lands and waters, the climates and soils of the places they inhabit. So was it in the past. Hence the fossil plants of a district will throw much light on its physical characters during the epoch when they were living, and from their evidence it is possible to build up a picture of the conditions of a region during the epochs of its unwritten history.
From every point of view a student of living plants will find his knowledge and understanding of them greatly increased by a study of the fossils. Not only to the botanist is the subject of value, the geologist is equally concerned with it, though from a slightly different viewpoint, and all students of the past history of the earth will gain from it a wider knowledge of their specialty.
To all observers of life, to all philosophers, the whole history of plants, which only approaches completion when the fossils are studied, and compared or contrasted with living forms, affords a wonderful illustration of the laws of evolution on which are based most of the modern conceptions of life. Even to those whose profession necessitates purely practical lines of thought, fossil botany has something to teach; the study of coal, for instance, comes within its boundaries. While to all who think on the world at all, the story told by the fossil plants is a chapter in the Book of Life which is as well worth reading as any in that mystical volume.


Of the rocks which form the solid earth of to-day, a very large proportion have been built up from the deposits at the bottom of ancient oceans and lakes. The earth is very old, and in the course of its history dry land and sea, mountains and valleys have been formed and again destroyed on the same spot, and it is from the silt at the bottom of an ocean that the hills of the future are built.
The chief key we have to the processes that were in operation in the past is the course of events passing under our eyes to-day. Hence, if we would understand the formation of the rocks in the ancient seas, we must go to the shores of the modern ones and see what is taking place there. One of the most noticeable characters of a shore is the line of flotsam that is left by the edge of the waves; here you may find all kinds of land plants mixed with the sea shells and general rubbish, plants that may have drifted far. Much of the débris (outside towns) is brought down by the rivers, and may be carried some distance out to sea; then part becomes waterlogged and sinks, and part floats in to shore, perhaps to be carried out again, or to be buried under the coarse sand of the beach. When we examine sandstone rock, or the finer grained stones which are hardened mud, we find in them the remains of shells, sometimes of bones, and also of plant leaves and stems, which in their time had formed the flotsam of a shore. Indeed, one may say that nearly every rock which has not been formed in ancient volcanoes, or been altered by their heat, carries in it some trace of plant or animal. These remains are often very fragmentary and difficult to recognize, but sometimes they are wellnigh as perfect as dried specimens of living things. When they are recognizable as plant or animal remains they are commonly called “fossils”, and it is from their testimony that we must learn all we can know about the life of the past.

Fig. 1.—The Face of a Quarry, showing layers or “beds” of different rock, a, b, and c. The top gravel and soil s has been disintegrated by the growing plants and atmosphere.
If we would find such stones for ourselves, the quarries offer the best hunting ground, for there

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