Space travelers and the first plants on land- Weird Plants Day at the Market

By: Dr. Daniel Stanton

When people think of plants, they usually think of bright colorful flowers or fields of crops. But plant life is much more diverse than just that, and some of the most exciting and important plants are the less showy little ones that we often overlook. Last Saturday’s Market Science was all about these “weird” plants that don’t have flowers or seeds: lichens, mosses and ferns. Dr Daniel Stanton of the University of Minnesota, who has worked on mosses and lichens around the world, from the Atacama desert to edge of Antarctica was on hand to show examples and answer questions.

Lichens, not truly plants but instead a close partnership (symbiosis) between fungi (which create a protective casing) and algae (which give food-sugars from photosynthesis to the fungi), are some of the toughest organisms on the planet. One variety, well known to anyone who has visited the North Shore and seen the splashes of orange on the rocks, is able survive more than 18 months in the vacuum of space without harm! Another lichen has been shown to be able to survive on the surface of Mars. This amazing toughness come from a “super-power” shared with mosses: lichens can be dried down and spend very long periods “resting” and then recover almost immediately when rewetted.

Lichens like the one covering this rock
Lichens like the one covering this rock are incredibly tough!

The ability to dry up and recover also characterizes a lot of the mosses that were on display. These ancient plants (two times older than the first dinosaurs) were probably among the first to colonize land, and still today we find them in places where no “normal” plant would ever be able to grow. Their tiny spores are able to go long distances and start growing even if there is no soil, and you’ll find them everywhere from tree bark to bare rock outcrops.

Equisetum (Horse Tail) is another "weird plant." It's the only living genus of the whole class Equisetopsida, which 300 million years ago dominated the forest understory around the globe.
Equisetum (Horse Tail) is another “weird plant.” It’s the only living genus of the whole class Equisetopsida, which 300 million years ago dominated forest understories around the globe.

So hopefully next time you see some “colorful smear” on a rock, or a bit of moss below a tree, you stop and look more closely at these small, but beautiful and rugged “weird plants”!

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