The Differences Between Angiosperms and Gymnosperms
What Are Angiosperms and Gymnosperms?
Gymnosperms and angiosperms are two types of vascular plants that make up the spermatophytes (plants that produce seeds.)
Angiosperms are plants that flower and have seeds contained within a fruit. This is the most common type of plant as angiosperms make up over 80% of all plant species! This makes Angiosperms the most diverse group of land plants. The term angiosperm also alludes to the fact that the seed of the plant is produced in an enclosed space, such as within fruit.
The word "gymnosperm" is Greek for "naked seed." This is because, unlike angiosperms, gymnosperms don't flower. Also, the seeds they produce aren't protected by fruit. The seeds of these plants often form on the scales or leaves of the plants. They can also form into cones or stalks, such as Gingko plants. Due to the “naked” nature of the seeds, they are often not seen until maturity when they are released from their cones.
Gingko trees, for example, are gymnosperms that produce seeds without offering the protection of a cone. These seeds often resemble fruits or nuts, being as they are encased in a soft fleshy covering with a harder casing underneath.
Trees in the angiosperm group are often called 'hardwoods' and gymnosperm trees are known as 'softwoods.'
Coniferous and Deciduous Trees
A great way to tell whether a particular tree is an angiosperm or a gymnosperm is to know whether it's a conifer or if it's a deciduous tree. All coniferous trees are gymnosperms. That said, it’s important to remember that not all gymnosperms are conifers (some non-conifer trees like gingko are gymnosperms.) Remember, some seeds of gymnosperms form on the leaves themselves or on stalks. Thus the distinction.
While this is a nifty trick for coniferous trees, you can't use it for deciduous trees. This is because while most deciduous trees are angiosperms, some trees are both deciduous and coniferous (this makes them gymnosperms since all conifers are gymnosperms.)
The American Larch is an example of a tree that is deciduous (it loses its foliage each year) but is a member of the conifer (Coniferae/Pinophyta) division. Why does it carry this strange distinction? Because its seeds are produced in cones. When it comes to tree classification, it's all about the reproduction process.
If this is confusing, what you should take from this is that all coniferous trees are gymnosperms. If a cone is evident, you have found a gymnosperm. If there are flowers, you have most likely found an angiosperm.
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As mentioned above, not all gymnosperms are coniferous plants. One of these plants, the Gingko, is even a really cool remnant of ancient history. This is because the Gingko genus dates back to the Early Jurassic period and the modern day Gingko (Gingko Biloba) is the only known living species of the entire genus!
Cycads, which resemble palm trees (palms are angiosperms, unlike cycads), are also gymnosperms. While there are few cycads today, these plants were extremely prevalent during the Jurassic period. One particular species of cycad, the encephalartos sclavoi found in Tanzania, is critically endangered. Its yellow cones can grow up to 40 centimeters in length! That is nearly 16 inches and well over a foot!
Another group of non-coniferous gymnosperms is the Gnetophyta division which is broken up into three genera (Ephedra, Gnetum, and Welwitschia.) The Welwitschia mirabilis plant, like the gingko tree, is often called a living fossil. This slow growing desert plant is very long-lived. Some Welwitschia plants have been found to be around 2000 years old!
Examples of Angiosperms
Many angiosperms have incredible economic value. Examples of angiosperms include fruit trees such as:
Plants in the nightshade family are also angiosperms. These includes:
Plants in the grass family:
- Sugar cane
All flowering plants are angiosperms. Since there are approximately 250,000 to 400,000 species of flowering plants, you may have guessed that a lot of plants are angiosperms! One of the more unique angiosperms is that of the common desert yucca.
The yucca plant is primarily identified by its long, sword-like leaves. There is, however, a thin stalk that grows up in the middle of the plant. It is on these stalks that flowers will grow. Since flowering plants are all angiosperms, you guessed it, so it the yucca. This is despite the fact that it is often grouped with the plants that fall into the ‘evergreen’ category.
Examples of Gymnosperms
Some examples of gymnosperms include:
As you can tell, there are far fewer species of gymnosperms. It is unknown as to why this is the case, especially since this type of plant has flourished ever since the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
One reason there may be a lack of diversity of gymnosperms is the lack of protection for their seeds. Once the seeds are released, they are ‘naked’ and unprotected from the elements. If they do not get into the ground quickly and take root, they run the chance of being severely damaged by animals or weather conditions.
© 2012 Melanie Shebel