Seed plants appeared about one million years ago, during the Carboniferous period. Two major innovations—seed and pollen—allowed seed plants to reproduce in the absence of water. The gametophytes of seed plants shrank, while the sporophytes became prominent structures and the diploid stage became the longest phase of the lifecycle. Gymnosperms became the dominant group during the Triassic. In these, pollen grains and seeds protect against desiccation. The seed, unlike a spore, is a diploid embryo surrounded by storage tissue and protective layers. It is equipped to delay germination until growth conditions are optimal. Angiosperms bear both flowers and fruit. The structures protect the gametes and the embryo during its development. Angiosperms appeared during the Mesozoic era and have become the dominant plant life in terrestrial habitats.
Gymnosperms are heterosporous seed plants that produce naked seeds. They appeared in the Paleozoic period and were the dominant plant life during the Mesozoic. Modern-day gymnosperms belong to four phyla. The largest phylum, Coniferophyta, is represented by conifers, the predominant plants at high altitude and latitude. Cycads (phylum Cycadophyta) resemble palm trees and grow in tropical climates. Gingko biloba is the only representative of the phylum Gingkophyta. The last phylum, Gnetophyta, is a diverse group of shrubs that produce vessel elements in their wood.
Angiosperms are the dominant form of plant life in most terrestrial ecosystems, comprising about 90 percent of all plant species. Most crops and ornamental plants are angiosperms. Their success comes from two innovative structures that protect reproduction from variability in the environment: the flower and the fruit. Flowers were derived from modified leaves. The main parts of a flower are the sepals and petals, which protect the reproductive parts: the stamens and the carpels. The stamens produce the male gametes in pollen grains. The carpels contain the female gametes (the eggs inside the ovules), which are within the ovary of a carpel. The walls of the ovary thicken after fertilization, ripening into fruit that ensures dispersal by wind, water, or animals.
The angiosperm life cycle is dominated by the sporophyte stage. Double fertilization is an event unique to angiosperms. One sperm in the pollen fertilizes the egg, forming a diploid zygote, while the other combines with the two polar nuclei, forming a triploid cell that develops into a food storage tissue called the endosperm. Flowering plants are divided into two main groups, the monocots and eudicots, according to the number of cotyledons in the seedlings. Basal angiosperms belong to an older lineage than monocots and eudicots.
Angiosperm diversity is due in part to multiple interactions with animals. Herbivory has favored the development of defense mechanisms in plants, and avoidance of those defense mechanism in animals. Pollination (the transfer of pollen to a carpel) is mainly carried out by wind and animals, and angiosperms have evolved numerous adaptations to capture the wind or attract specific classes of animals.
Plants play a key role in ecosystems. They are a source of food and medicinal compounds, and provide raw materials for many industries. Rapid deforestation and industrialization, however, threaten plant biodiversity. In turn, this threatens the ecosystem.