Botany and the plant sciences, a brief outline.

What is Botany?

American Journal of Botany cover images - click here Botany is the scientific study of plants. "Plants," to most people, means a wide range of living organisms from the smallest bacteria to the largest of living things - the giant sequoia trees. By this definition plants include: algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants. Today scientists believe bacteria, algae and fungi are in their own distinct kingdoms, but most general botany courses, and most Botany Departments at colleges and universities, still teach about these groups.

Because the field is so broad, there are many kinds of plant biologists and many different career and study opportunities available. Botanists interested in ecology study interactions of plants with other organisms and the environment. Other field botanists search to find new species or do experiments to discover how plants grow under different conditions. Some botanists study the structure of plants. They may work in the field, concentrating on the pattern of the whole plant. Others use microscopes to study the most detailed fine structure of individual cells. Many botanists do experiments to determine how plants convert simple chemical compounds into more complex chemicals. They may even study how genetic information in DNA controls plant development. Botanists study processes that occur on a time scale ranging from fractions of a second in individual cells to those that unfold over eons of evolutionary time.

Areas of Specialization in Botany, Organismal Specialization in Botany, Applied Botanical/Plant Sciences

The results of botanical research increase and improve our supply of medicines, foods, fibers, building materials, and other plant products. Conservationists use botanical knowledge to help manage parks, forests, rangelands, and wilderness areas. Public health and environmental protection professionals depend on their understanding of plant science to help solve pollution problems.

Areas of Specialization in Botany

Aristolochia gigantea. Although the flowers of Aristolochia are highly specialized whereas those of Lactoris are less complex, recent phylogenetic analyses based on molecular data suggest an unexpectedly close relationship between the two genera. Click on image for further information

Plant Anatomy

The study of plant cells and tissue.

A projection of 29 confocal optical sections taken at 0.2-um intervals through the hyphal network in an inner cortical cell of a root of Medicago truncatula colonized by arbuscular-mycorrhizal fungi. Click on image for furtehr information.


The study of the application of physics to plant life processes.

Scanning electron micrograph of a young sunflower capitulum (left) and simulation of the same structure based on mechanical buckling of a thin circular plate (right). One family of spirals is highlighted in yellow.


The study of the structure, function, and life history of plant cells.

Fire rages through oaks, pines, and palmettos at the Archbold Biological Station, Lake Placid, Florida.


The study of the relationships between plants and the world in which they live, both individually and in communities.
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Cauliflorous figs of Ficus itoanafrom Madang, Papua, New Guinea.


The study of the uses of plants by indigenous peoples.

Genetic variation in populations of the arctic perennial Pedicularis dasyantha (Scrophulariaceae), on Svalbard, Norway Click on image for further information.


The study of plant heredity and variation. Plant geneticists analyze genes and gene function in plants.

Scanning electron micrograph of an early floral developmental stage of the outcrossing subspecies of Clarkia xantania (Onagraceae). Click here for more information.


The study of microorganisms. Microbiologists may be specialized by organism (for example, microbiologists that study bacteria) of by a branch of biology (for example, Microbial Ecology).

Scanning electron micrograph of dichotomously branched, subterranean gametophyte of Psilotum nudum grown in axenic culture.

Molecular Biology

The study of the structure and function of biological macromolecules in plants, including biochemical and molecular aspects of genetics.

Hitchenia glauca. This rare member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) is restricted to monsoonal forest margins and grasslands in central Myanmar.


The study of macroscopic plant form and life cycles. Morphologists also study the evolution and development of leaves, roots and stems.

Fossil Woodwardia virginica foliage from the middle Miocene Yakima Canyon flora of central Washington State, USA.


The study of the biology and evolution of fossil plants.

Time series during hydration of an oriental spruce (Picea orientalis) pollen grain.


The study of pollen and spores.

Inflorescence with flowers of purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria(left panel).


Study of the functions and vital processes of plants. Photosynthesis and mineral nutrition are two examples of subjects studied by plant physiologists.

Cross section of a mature leaf of Vigna mungo, immunolabelled using an antibody raised against soybean leaf vegetative storage protein 27/29 (VSP 27/29).


The study of the chemical aspects of plant life processes, iincluding the chemical products of plants (biochemistry).

The magnificent blossoms of magnolias have been highly prized in landscaping for centuries.


The study of the evolutionary history and relationships among plants. This includes the classification and naming of plants.
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The growth of a bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) root system for 10 d, as simulated by SimRoot, a dynamic simulation model of botanical root systems based on empirical growth parameters.

Systems Ecology

The use of mathematical models to demonstrate the role and use of plants as components of the ecosystem (i.e. concepts like nutrient cycling).

A phylogeny of angiosperms based on matK, a plastid gene nested within the trnK intron. Illustrations are superimposed on photographs of representative taxa from major angiosperm lineages, with Amborella shown in the center.


The subdiscipline of identifying, naming, and classifying plants.
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Organismal Specialization in Botany

World in a petri dish constructed from various morphological mutants of the moss Funaria hygrometrica tries to capture the potential of mosses as a global experimental system for plant biology.


The study of mosses, liverworts and similar plants (Kingdom Plantea - Division Bryophyta with ~25,000 species). Consisting mainly of small plants restricted to moist enviroments the bryophytes are the second largest groupings of land plants. Bryologists study all aspects of these plants, including their identification, classification, and ecology.
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Populus grandidentata - young leaf with trichomes prior to abscission. Note constricted base of trichome - where abscission will occur.


The study of the biology of lichens (with ~18,000 species). Lichens are dual organisms consiting of an alga (phycobiont) and a fungus (mycobiont) in a mutualistic relationship.
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Inocybe hirsuta var. maxima A. H. Smith (SAT 01-279-08) photographed in the Hoh River Valley in Olympic National Park, Washington, USA.


The study of the biology of fungi (two Kingdoms, Kingdom Protista - (Divisions Myxomycota and Oomycota) and Kingdom Fungi - (Divisions Ascomycota, Basidiomycota, Chytridiomycota and Zygomycota) with over 75,000 species). Fungi have a tremendous impact on our world. They are crucial in the biosphere because they help recycle dead organic material. Some fungi are important producers of biological products such as vitamins and antibiotics.
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Asplenium aureum Cav. photographed in a remnant of laurel forest in the Barranco del Laurel, Gran Canaria.


The study of ferns and similar plants (Kingdom Plantea - (Divisions Psilophyta, Lycophyta, Schenophyta and Pterophyta) with ~12,000 species). Pteridologists study all aspects of fem biology.
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Transverse view showing internal structure of a plasmodesma of the charophycean green alga Chara zeylanica.


The study of algae (2 Kin gdoms, Kingdom Eubacteria - (Division Cyanobacteria) and Kingdom Protisa - (Divisions Chlorophyta, Chrysophyta, Euglenophyta, Phaeophyta, Pyrrophyta and Rodophyta) with ~26,000 species), which are the base of the food chain in the aquatic environments of the world. These oranisms are believed to be responsible for over half of the photosynthetic carbon fixation on our planet! Phycologists that study algae in oceans are sometimes called Marine Botanists.
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Applied Botanical/Plant Sciences

Tassel seed mutations in maize. Maize plants bear two different types of inflorescences, the tassel and the ears.


Crop and soil sciences. Agronomists make practical use of plant and soil sciences to increase the yield of field crops.

The coleorhiza epidermis has root hairlike extensions that elongate (upper right) during radicle emergence (lower left) of perennial ryegrass, Lolium perenne.

Plant Breeding

The development of better types of plants. Breeding involves selecting and crossing plants with desirable traits such as disease resistance.

A stoma from the scale of a female cone of Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca). Click on image for further information.


The study and manipulation of genes within and between species. Using biological organisms to produce useful products. Most people today have a narrower view of biotechnology as the genetic modification of living organisms to produce useful products. Plant biotechnology involves inserting desirable genes into plants and having those genes expressed.

A sample of the diversity of tubers oca, Oxalis tuberosa Molina, from the germplasm bank of PROINPA (Programa de la Investigacion de la Papa), Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Economic Botany

The study of the utilization of plants by humans. The study of plants with commercial importance. Economic botany includes the study of botany harmful and beneficial plants and plant products.

Seed samples from the ex situ Phaseoleae collection held at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium and chiefly centered on the conservation of wild forms of Phaseolusand Vigna.

Food Science & Technology

The development of food from vanous plant products.

Cecropia obtusa Trécul (Cecropiaceae), a pioneer species associated with the initial phases of vegetation sequences of tropical South American forests.


The study of forest management and the utilization of forest products.

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Floral diversity in the blueberries (Vaccinieae, Ericaceae). Top row from left: Paphia meiniana, Queensland, Australia (photo: K. A. Kron); Vaccinium corymbosum, eastern United States (photo: K. A. Kron); Macleania stricta, Ecuador (photo: J. L. Luteyn). Second row from left: Satyria warszewiczii, Panama (photo: E. A. Powell), upper—Dimorphanthera anchorifera, New Guinea (photo: K. A. Kron), lower—Vaccinium poasanum, Central America (photo: E. A. Powell), Agapetes serpens, Thailand (photo: K. A. Kron).


The production of ornamental plants and fruit and vegetable crops. Landscape design is also an important subdiscipline in horticulture.

A site on Stepping Stones Island along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula where plants were collected for field and environmental chamber experiments examining the influence of temperature on the growth of flowering plants. Click here for more information.

Natural Resource Management

The responsible use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of society.

Artificially colored ascospores of the saprobic microfungus Aliquandostipite khaoyaiensis(Loculoascomycetes, Ascomycota).

Plant Pathology

The study of the diseases of plants. Plant pathologists are concerned with both the biological aspects of disease and with disease management, or control.
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Keep going! You're just begining the amazing adventure into the science of botany. Explore the cover stories for the American Journal of Botany, additional botanical images & stories, and the all the other pages the Botanical Society of America's website has to offer.

Investigate the American Journal of Botany images & cover stories for other years! 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992,

And there are more images and information on the What is Botany, Carnivorous Plants!, and the BSA Online Images, pages.

Questions About Botany Meetings should be directed to: BSA Meetings Manager:
Johanne Stogran
Botanical Society of America Meetings Office
2813 Blossom Ave
Columbus, OH 43231
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