Vessels in ferns: Structural, ecological, and evolutionary significance

Sherwin Carlquist, Edward L. Schneider

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59 Scopus citations


We have studied macerated xylem of ferns, supplemented by sections, by means of scanning electron microscopy (SEM) in a series of 20 papers, the results of which are summarized and interpreted here. Studies were based mostly on macerations, but also on some sections: these methods should be supplemented by other methods to confirm or modify the findings presented. Guidelines are cited for our interpretations of features of pit membranes. Fern xylem offers many distinctive features: (1) presence of numerous vessels and various numbers of tracheids in most species: (2) presence of vessels in both roots and rhizomes in virtually all species: (3) presence of specialized end walls in vessels of only a few species: (4) multiple end-wall perforation plates in numerous species: (5) lateral-wall perforation plates in numerous species; (6) porose pit membranes associated with perforation plates in all species: and (7) pit dimorphism, yielding wide membrane-free perforations alternating with extremely narrow pits. Multiple end wall perforation plates and lateral wall perforation plates are associated with the packing of tracheary elements in fascicles in ferns: facets of tips of elements contact numerous facets of adjacent elements; all such contacts are potential sites for conduction by means of perforations. This packing differs from that in primary xylem of dicotyledons and monocotyledons. Porosities in pit membranes represent a way of interconnecting vessel elements within a rhizome or root. In addition, these porosities can interconnect rhizome vessel elements with those of roots, a feature of importance because roots are adventitious in ferns as opposed to those of vascular plants with taproots. Fully-formed or incipient (small-to-medium sized porosities in pit membranes) perforation plates are widespread in ferns. These are believed to represent (1) ease of lysis of pit membranes via pectinase and cellulase; (2) numerous potential sites for perforation plate formation because of fasciculate packing of tracheary elements; (3) evolution of ferns over a long period of time, so that lysis pathways have had time to form: (4) lack of disadvantage in perforation plate presence, regardless of whether habitat moisture fluctuates markedly or little, because ferns likely have maintaining integrity of water columns that override the embolism-confining advantage of tracheids. Although all ferns share some common features, the diversity in xylem anatomy discovered thus far in ferns suggests that much remains to be learned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican journal of botany
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2001


  • Ecological anatomy
  • Ferns
  • Incipient perforation plates
  • Intermittent perforation plates
  • Lateral wall perforation plates
  • Multiple perforation plates
  • Pit dimorphism
  • Pit membrane remnants
  • Pit-membrane porosities
  • Vessel definitions
  • Vessel evolution, xylem


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