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34.5: Basic Plant Anatomy: Roots, Stems, and Leaves

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Basic Plant Anatomy: Roots, Stems, and Leaves

34.5: Basic Plant Anatomy: Roots, Stems, and Leaves

The primary organs of vascular plants are roots, stems, and leaves, but these structures can be highly variable, adapted for the specific needs and environment of different plant species.


While roots are most often found underground, this is not universally the case. Aerial roots are any roots that emerge aboveground. Epiphytic plants, such as orchids, can live their entire lives without touching soil. Other types of aerial roots, such as those of the strangler fig or banyan, germinate aboveground but grow downward, eventually penetrating the soil below and appearing to “strangle” their host plant.

Some plants have roots that are adapted to provide additional support. Buttress roots are one such modification. Often found on trees growing in tropical areas where the soil is nutrient-poor, and there is plenty of water available near the surface from rainfall, buttress roots provide structural support to large trees with shallow roots. Brace roots or prop roots are another type of modified root that supports tall, shallow-rooted plants such as corn. They grow as adventitious roots—those that do not develop from the primary root—from nodes near the bottom of the stem, reaching the ground at an angle to provide structural support.


Plant stems have several functions. These include providing structure, supporting the leaves, buds, and flowers. Additionally, the stem will aid in orienting the leaves to maximize photosynthesis. Stems are composed of nodes, points at which leaves and branches attach, and internodes, the regions of stem between the nodes.

The petiole is a stalk that anchors each leaf at the node.


The leaves conduct the majority of photosynthesis. While leaves can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, the blades are often thin and flattened in shape to maximize the surface area exposed to sunlight. The terminal part of the leaf is called the blade, or lamina. Simple leaves have one blade per petiole, while compound leaves have multiple blades attached to each petiole. Some plants, such as grasses, lack a petiole. Instead, the blade directly envelops part of the stem.

Roots, Leaves, and Stems as Storage Vessels

Roots can be modified for food storage. Taproots such as carrots and beets are enlarged to store starches. Stems and leaves can also be modified to store starches - tubers such as potatoes are actually modified stems, even though they grow underground. Additionally, onions are a modified starch-storing leaf.

Suggested Reading


Plant Anatomy Roots Stems Leaves Shoot System Root System Taproot System Fibrous Root System Reproductive Organs Vegetative Organs Flowers Fruit Cones Stem Structure Photosynthesis Nodes Internodes

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