The systems of classification of the plant kingdom vary in naming and placing the larger categories (even the divisions) because there is little reliable fossil evidence, as there is in the case of animals, to establish the true evolutionary relationships of and distances between these groups. However, comparisons of nucleic acid sequences in plants are now serving to clarify such relationships among plants as well as other organisms.
A widely held view of plant evolution is that the ancestors of land plants were primitive algae that made their way from the ocean to freshwater, where they inhabited alternately wet-and-dry shoreline environments, eventually giving rise to such later forms as the liverworts and mosses. From some remote fern ancestor, in turn, arose the seed plants.
The plant kingdom traditionally was divided into two large groups, or subkingdoms, based chiefly on reproductive structure. These are the thallophytes (subkingdom Thallobionta), which do not form embryos, and the embryophytes (subkingdom Embryobionta), which do. All embryophytes and most thallophytes have a life cycle in which there are two alternating generations (see reproduction). The plant form of the thallophytes is an undifferentiated thallus lacking true roots, stems, and leaves. The subkingdom Thallobionta is composed of more than 10 divisions of algae and fungi (once considered plants). The subkingdom Embryobionta is composed of two groups: the bryophytes (liverwort and moss), division Bryophyta, which have no vascular tissues, and a group consisting of seven divisions of plants that do have vascular tissues. The Bryophyta, like other nonvascular plants, are simple in structure and lack true roots, stems, and leaves; they therefore usually live in moist places or in water.
The vascular plants have true roots, stems, and leaves and a well-developed vascular system composed of xylem and phloem for transporting water and food throughout the plant; they are therefore able to inhabit land. Three of the divisions of the vascular plants are currently represented by only a very few species. They are the Psilotophyta, with only three living species; the Lycopodiophyta (club mosses); and the Equisetophyta (horsetails). All the plants of a fourth subdivision, the Rhyniophyta, are extinct. The remaining divisions include the dominant vegetation of the earth today: the ferns (see Polypodiophyta), the cone-bearing gymnosperms (see Pinophyta), and the angiosperms, or true flowering plants (see Magnoliophyta). The latter two classes, because they both bear seeds, are often collectively called spermatophytes, or seed plants.
The gymnosperms are all woody perennial plants and include several orders, of which most important are the conifer, the ginkgo, and the cycad. The angiosperms are separated into the monocotyledonous plants—usually with one cotyledon per seed, scattered vascular bundles in the stem, little or no cambium, and parallel veins in the leaf—and the dicotyledonous plants—which as a rule have two cotyledons per seed, cylindrical vascular bundles in a regular pattern, a cambium, and net-veined leaves. There are some 50,000 species of monocotyledon, including the grasses (e.g., bamboo and such cereals as corn, rice, and wheat), cattails, lilies, bananas, and orchids. The dicotyledons contain nearly 200,000 species of plant, from tiny herbs to great trees; this enormously varied group includes the majority of plants cultivated as ornamentals and for vegetables and fruit.