Phylum Pteridophyta: Characteristics, Classification & Life Cycle

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  • 0:01 Ferns and Their Relatives
  • 0:44 Defining Characteristics
  • 1:58 Lycophytes
  • 3:03 Whisk Ferns,…
  • 3:50 Life Cycle of Pteridophyta
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Taormina Lepore

Taormina has taught advanced high school biology, is a science museum educator, and has a Master's degree in museum paleontology.

In this lesson, we'll discover the characteristics, classification, and life cycle of the group Pteridophyta, which includes plant species like ferns and horsetails.

Ferns and Their Relatives

What do you picture when you think of ancient forest-scapes, or even modern forests? It's hard to think of a forest without a lush, green abundance of ferns. But what makes ferns and their relatives so special?

The group pteridophyta, the 'wing plants', is a diverse bunch of related plants. At one point, pteridophyta was considered its own phylum, although now they are considered a group of disparate relatives with separate common ancestors. That makes pteridophyta a paraphyletic group, one containing many phyla.

This group includes ferns, horsetails, clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts. Let's talk about how they're related, as well as how they survive and thrive.

Defining Characteristics

When the first vascular plants successfully rooted themselves into the early Earth's soil 400 million years ago, they looked a little like pteridophytes. Vascular plants are plants that have food-transporting phloem and water-transporting xylem tissues. Most pteridophytes have vascular tissue in their stems and roots.

Pteridophytes are seedless plants. That means they have to pass on their genes to the next generation without using cones, fruits, or any other form of seed. Instead of seeds, ferns produce spore capsules, or sporangia, on the undersides of their green leaves or on specialized, non-green leaves called sporophylls. Sometimes ferns can catapult their spores several meters away using the spring-like structure of these sporangia.

Some pteridophytes are further united by the presence of a single leaf per vein, an arrangement known as a microphyll. Clubmosses, quillworts, and spikemosses have this simple leaf arrangement.

True ferns, horsetails, and whisk ferns all share larger, more complex branching leaves, known as megaphylls. Ferns and their kin share this megaphyll trait with other modern vascular plants such as cone-bearing plants and flowering plants.


To tease out the classification of pteridophytes, we've got to mention each of the key groups. They are the lycophytes (clubmosses, quillworts, and spikemosses), the whisk ferns, the horsetails, and the true ferns, each one with its own unique subset of characteristics.

The division known as lycophytes, or clubmosses, are relics of an ancient world where giant woody lycophytes thrived in the swamps of the Carboniferous Period 300 million years ago. Some ancient lycophytes stood more than 40 meters tall. That's as tall as many water storage towers.

These tall clubmosses became extinct and formed some of the coal we mine today. The living lycophytes are much smaller and thrive in the tropics or on forest floors. Even though they are called clubmosses, remember that lycophytes are not true mosses.

Quillworts and spikemosses are also specialized types of lycophytes, though they are in their own class separate from the clubmoss class. These seedless plants look a little like a bottle brush, and are among the oldest vascular plants.

Whisk Ferns, Horsetails, and True Ferns

Whisk ferns, horsetails, and true ferns are united by branching megaphyll leaves. The whisk ferns, in the genus Psilotum, are a kind of living fossil that harks back to the first vascular land plants 400 million years ago. They appear to be genetically most closely related to true ferns.

Horsetails, or sphenophytes, have a brushy appearance and are often found along marsh edges and streams. The stem itself is the major place where photosynthesis occurs.

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