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World History

Small beginnings: the first vascular plants

The first vascular plants weren't anything spectacular to look at. They comprised smallish shoots, only about 50cm high, with thick stems and firm, spiny leaves.

These vascular plants had ingeniously invented a chemical called lignin, that toughens the walls of plant cells. Plants that have little or no lignin stay small and floppy – like herbs or garden flowers. Although the stems of plants like these can feel rigid, they are held up only by the force of water within them. If the water supply dwindles, the herb or flower wilts.

Plants with lignin in them can stay upright even when a drought sets in. With great precision, lignin-toughened cells are stacked and interwoven in carefully constructed layers to make wood – the magical stuff of trees. Lignin also provides tubes through which minerals and water are transported up and around the tree.

The first evidence of lignin came from plants called Rhyniophytes (named after their place of discovery in Scotland). These are now extinct, but their descendants are all round us – indeed, everything woody ultimately comes from these early pioneers of the land. Mind you, it took a while – at least 40 million years – for these small plants with toughened stems to become tall, graceful trees.

By the time we get to the Carboniferous Period (360 million years ago), trees were growing in huge numbers. The earliest, called Lycophytes, were simple structures. They had roots and branches which divided into a "Y" shape. But they could also be very big, with some specimens, such as the lepidodendron tree, as wide as 2m and as tall as a 12-storey building.

Growing up: life in the world's first forests

Except for the wind, and maybe a scratching sound inside a hollow log or a faint buzzing in the branches, it was eerily quiet in this prehistoric world. There were few animals, and no birds – it was still far too soon for them. And the landscape looked pretty much the same in all directions – an endless thick, dark greenish-brown, a blur of identical-looking trees. Very few varieties existed at this time. There were also no flowers. The Earth would have to wait at least another 150 million years before it could witness a first bloom. Compared with trees, flowers are a modern fad.

The lycophyte trees that dominated ancient forests lacked one crucial ingredient, and this would ultimately lead to their graceful decline into extinction some 270 million years ago. They lacked true leaves. They mostly used scales on their trunks and thin green blades on their branches for photosynthesis instead. It was left to a relative of the vascular plants found at Rhynie to come up with the concept of creating little green solar panels attached to the tips of branches. These were the euphyllophytes – literally "good leaf plants". Most trees that are alive today are descended from them. Euphyllophytes quickly grew into several varieties, including ferns and horsetails.

If it weren't for lycophytes, ferns and horsetails, the whole history of modern civilisation – and our lives today – would have been very different indeed. These early trees colonised the land in their millions. When they died, most of them sank into swampy marshes, where, over millions of years, they were compacted, hardened, chemically altered and metamorphosed by heat and pressure, ultimately becoming coal. This source of chemical energy would eventually fuel the Industrial Revolution, millions of years later.

While lignin helped trees become strong and leaves trapped the energy of the Sun to make food, trees still faced the difficulty of finding a steady and reliable supply of water that somehow had to be channelled all the way to the top of their canopies – water that was often dispersed many metres below the ground. Trees rose to that challenge in two ways. The first relied on cultivating a good crop of friends to help. The second was down to ingenious design.

Tree roots grow downwards to find water. But to help them, they often enlist the support of another group of highly versatile living things. Fungi, neither plant nor animal (although for a long time they were grouped with plants), form their own separate, almost invisible underground kingdom.

The miracle of Rhynie chert

We know about the first vascular plants thanks to a bizarre discovery in a Scottish village called Rhynie, about 25 miles north-east of Aberdeen. In 1912, local doctor and amateur geologist William Mackie made an extraordinary find when he was out exploring a nearby piece of ground. After digging out various pieces of earth, he discovered perfectly preserved species of plants fossilised in the rocks (a particular kind of fossil-friendly sedimentary rock known as "chert").

About 400 million years ago Rhynie was like a steaming cauldron with boiling-hot pools of bubbling mud. Every so often a giant geyser would spout a huge fountain of scorching water filled with silicon from deep inside the Earth. Silicon is one of the elements that form sand and rock. When this silicate water landed on nearby vegetation and plants it didn't just kill them instantly: when it cooled, it petrified them into perfect fossils of stone.

The fossils of Rhynie are so well preserved that scientists can see exactly what the plants were made of and how they worked.