Plants, life forms of

Plants, life forms of

A term for the vegetative (morphological) form of the plant body. Life-form systems are based on differences in gross morphological features, and the categories bear no necessary relationship to reproductive structures, which form the basis for taxonomic classification. Features used in establishing life-form classes include deciduous versus evergreen leaves, broad versus needle leaves, size of leaves, degree of protection afforded the perennating tissue, succulence, and duration of life cycle (annual, biennial, or perennial).

There is a clear correlation between life forms and climates. For example, broad-leaved evergreen trees clearly dominate in the hot humid tropics, whereas broad-leaved deciduous trees prevail in temperature climates with cold winters and warm summers, and succulent cacti dominate American deserts. Although cacti are virtually absent from African deserts, members of the family Euphorbiaceae have evolved similar succulent life forms. Such adaptations are genetic, having arisen by natural selection.

Many life-form systems have been developed. The most successful and widely used system is that of C. Raunkiaer, proposed in 1905. Reasoning that it was the perennating buds (the tips of shoots which renew growth after a dormant season, either of cold or drought) which permit a plant to survive in a specific climate, Raunkiaer's classes were based on the degree of protection afforded the bud and the position of the bud relative to the soil surface. They applied to autotrophic, vascular, self-supporting plants. Raunkiaer's classificatory system is:

Phanerophytes: bud-bearing shoots in the air, predominantly woody trees and shrubs; subclasses based on height and on presence or absence of bud scales

Chamaephytes: bud within 10 in. (25 cm) of the surface, mostly prostrate or creeping shrubs

Hemicryptophytes: buds at the soil surface, protected by scales, snow, and litter

Cryptophytes: buds underneath the soil surface or under water

Therophytes: annuals, the seed representing the only perennating tissue

By determining the life forms of a sample of 1000 species from the world's floras, Raunkiaer showed a correlation between the percentage of species in each life-form class present in an area and the climate of the area. Raunkiaer concluded that there were four main phytoclimates: phanerophyte-dominated flora of the hot humid tropics, hemicryptophyte-dominated flora in moist to humid temperate areas, therophyte-dominated flora in arid areas, and a chamaephyte-dominated flora of high latitudes and altitudes.

Subsequent studies modified Raunkiaer's views. (1) Phanerophytes dominate, to the virtual exclusion of other life forms, in true tropical rainforest floras, whereas other life forms become proportionately more important in tropical climates with a dry season. (2) Therophytes are most abundant in arid climates and are prominent in temperate areas with an extended dry season, such as regions with Mediterranean climate. (3) Other temperate floras have a predominance of hemicryptophytes with the percentage of phanerophytes decreasing from summer-green deciduous forest to grassland. (4) Arctic and alpine tundra are characterized by a flora which is often more than three-quarters chamaephytes and hemicryptophytes, the percentage of chamaephytes increasing with latitude and altitude.

There has been interest in developing systems which describe important morphologic features of plants and which permit mapping and diagramming vegetation. Descriptive systems incorporate essential structural features of plants, such as stem architecture and height; deciduousness; leaf texture, shape, and size; and mechanisms for dispersal. These systems are important in mapping vegetation because structural features generally provide the best criteria for recognition of major vegetation units.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.