Charophyceae are of great fossil age; the stoneworts date as far back as the late Silurian period. Cells of this class are asymetrical. Those that are motile have two flagella, at right angles near the apex of the cell. Sexual reproduction in this class, as in Chlorophyceae, is characterized by the formation of a zygospore and zygotic meiosis. Unlike in the other two common classes of green algae, but as with plants, the nuclear envelope disintegrates when mitosis begins. During cell division the mitotic spindle is present; in some a phragmoplast similar to those seen in plants aids in the formation of a cell plate. Plants are thought to have evolved from early species of Charophyceae.
The class includes Spirogyra, familiar filamentous algae that float on ponds and lakes in slimy masses. The desmids are single cells noted for their extraordinary symmetry and geometrical beauty. They are found only in fresh (usually still) water and often take an important place in the food chains of small nutrient-poor ponds and peat bogs. The stoneworts consist of a complex branched thallus with an erect stemlike structure and many whorls of short branches. They occur in shallow fresh or brackish water and especially in water rich in calcium, where they become stiff and lime-encrusted, a characteristic that has made them plentiful in the fossil record.