Leaves

Leaf Adaptations

Coniferous plant species that thrive in cold environments, like spruce, fir, and pine, have leaves that are reduced in size and needle-like in appearance. These needle-like leaves have sunken stomata and a smaller surface area: two attributes that aid in reducing water loss. In hot climates, plants such as cacti have leaves that are reduced to spines, which in combination with their succulent stems, help to conserve water. Many aquatic plants have leaves with wide lamina that can float on the surface of the water, and a thick waxy cuticle on the leaf surface that repels water.

Link to Learning

Watch “The Pale Pitcher Plant” episode of the video series Plants Are Cool, Too, a Botanical Society of America video about a carnivorous plant species found in Louisiana.

Evolution Connection

Plant Adaptations in Resource-Deficient EnvironmentsRoots, stems, and leaves are structured to ensure that a plant can obtain the required sunlight, water, soil nutrients, and oxygen resources. Some remarkable adaptations have evolved to enable plant species to thrive in less than ideal habitats, where one or more of these resources is in short supply.

In tropical rainforests, light is often scarce, since many trees and plants grow close together and block much of the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Many tropical plant species have exceptionally broad leaves to maximize the capture of sunlight. Other species are epiphytes: plants that grow on other plants that serve as a physical support. Such plants are able to grow high up in the canopy atop the branches of other trees, where sunlight is more plentiful. Epiphytes live on rain and minerals collected in the branches and leaves of the supporting plant. Bromeliads (members of the pineapple family), ferns, and orchids are examples of tropical epiphytes (Figure). Many epiphytes have specialized tissues that enable them to efficiently capture and store water.

Photo shows long, thin brown leaves of Spanish moss hanging down from the branches of a large oak tree.
One of the most well known bromeliads is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), seen here in an oak tree. (credit: Kristine Paulus)

Some plants have special adaptations that help them to survive in nutrient-poor environments. Carnivorous plants, such as the Venus flytrap and the pitcher plant (Figure), grow in bogs where the soil is low in nitrogen. In these plants, leaves are modified to capture insects. The insect-capturing leaves may have evolved to provide these plants with a supplementary source of much-needed nitrogen.

 Left photo shows modified leaves of a Venus flytrap. The two leaves resemble the upper and lower part of the mouth, and are red on the interior. Hair-like appendages, like teeth, frame each modified leaf, so that when the leaves close, the insect will be trapped. Right photo shows three modified leaves of the pitcher plant, which are green tubes with red specks and have a red rim forming the top opening.
The (a) Venus flytrap has modified leaves that can capture insects. When an unlucky insect touches the trigger hairs inside the leaf, the trap suddenly closes. The opening of the (b) pitcher plant is lined with a slippery wax. Insects crawling on the lip slip and fall into a pool of water in the bottom of the pitcher, where they are digested by bacteria. The plant then absorbs the smaller molecules. (credit a: modification of work by Peter Shanks; credit b: modification of work by Tim Mansfield)

Many swamp plants have adaptations that enable them to thrive in wet areas, where their roots grow submerged underwater. In these aquatic areas, the soil is unstable and little oxygen is available to reach the roots. Trees such as mangroves (Rhizophora sp.) growing in coastal waters produce aboveground roots that help support the tree (Figure). Some species of mangroves, as well as cypress trees, have pneumatophores: upward-growing roots containing pores and pockets of tissue specialized for gas exchange. Wild rice is an aquatic plant with large air spaces in the root cortex. The air-filled tissue—called aerenchyma—provides a path for oxygen to diffuse down to the root tips, which are embedded in oxygen-poor bottom sediments.

 Photo A shows mangrove trees with roots extending into the water. Part B shows cypress trees growing in the water, with upward-growing roots between the trees. Part C is a scanning electron micrograph showing a cross section of wild rice. The cells radiate from the center like spokes on a bicycle wheel, and are interspersed by large spaces that hold air.
The branches of (a) mangrove trees develop aerial roots, which descend to the ground and help to anchor the trees. (b) Cypress trees and some mangrove species have upward-growing roots called pneumatophores that are involved in gas exchange. Aquatic plants such as (c) wild rice have large spaces in the root cortex called aerenchyma, visualized here using scanning electron microscopy. (credit a: modification of work by Roberto Verzo; credit b: modification of work by Duane Burdick; credit c: modification of work by Robert R. Wise)

Link to Learning

Watch Venus Flytraps: Jaws of Death, an extraordinary BBC close-up of the Venus flytrap in action.