Mesophytes, Hydrophytes & Xerophytes – Quite the mouthful. When this once puzzled gardener came across these mysterious words, well, he didn’t have the foggiest what he was looking at.
They might as well have been hieroglyphs.
Turns out however, that these three classifications encompass much of the plant life alive on Earth today.
They delineate and organise the plant world along the line of water-consumption, looking at how each group of plants have adapted to and thrived using the moisture availability in their specific environments.
So, we’ve decided to take a look at each group in turn, looking at some of the fascinating ways in which they have adapted, how they survive their specific environments today, and providing some examples to add a little colour to the cold hard deluge of information.
Let’s take a look.
To begin with, let’s take a look at the type most of us will be very familiar with (whether we know it or not) – Mesophytes.
What is a Mesophyte?
This group of plants – referred to as Mesophytic plants – are, for many of us, what we experience each and everyday. Mesophytes are adapted to conditions where water is available in moderate quantities, such as common flora in Temperate or Tropical areas of our planet.
Mesophytes then are in many ways, the average joe of the plant world. They haven’t overly specialised like their Xerophyte and Hydrophyte cousins, instead focusing on capturing the large section of our planet’s climate which lands between these two extremes.
If you were to lift these plants and dump them in the desert – They’d very likely perish. Likewise were you to drop them into a body of water – Not their style.
By capturing this middle-ground however, the Mesophytic family of plants has successfully spread across the globe, multiplying and diversifying over millions of years into the fantastical array of life we see today.
Perhaps sometimes it’s better to be a solid swiss-army knife, rather than the world’s best bottle-opener.
As a result of evolving to suit a consistently gradual supply of moisture, Mesophytes have developed complex, strong root-systems, in order to harvest the various elements needed from their surrounding environment.
This relatively easy-access to essential nutrients has allowed Mesophytic plants the ability to develop complex structures, versatile structures, as well as providing the foundations needed for their branching off into millions of unique variations over their long evolution.
Their leaves are generally quite large, with a waxy cuticle (Coating) which serves to protect stored moisture from evaporation.
Although there are a wide-array of leaf shapes on display amongst the Mesophyte family, they are generally; Green, Flat and relatively Thin in comparison to their overall area.
Finally, their ‘Stomata’ – pores on the underside of the leaves – are generally well-developed, allowing plants to prevent excess evaporation, consume Carbon Dioxide and release the resulting waste Oxygen (Luckily for us!).
Mesophytes are probably the most well-known plant group to leymen around the world, and there are so many examples here which we could choose from. We’ll stick to some really well-known ones to give a brief overview of the Mesophytic world:
- Oak Tree – Deciduous tree common around much of the globe.
- Wheat – A common staple crop used to make products such as Bread.
- Pine Tree – Coniferous tree common around much of the globe.
- Lavender – Common herb with fragrant, oil-secreting blooms. Used to make a range of scented products.
- Apple Tree – Common deciduous fruiting tree used as a staple crop in many regions of the world.
Hydrophytes – A less common occurrence in the lives of most of us laymen, yet no less important to the ecological workings of our world.
What is a Hydrophyte?
Hydrophytic plants have evolved to grow in aquatic environments.
They primarily live either submerged within or directly adjacent to bodies of water, exhibiting a range of specialised adaptations which allow them to thrive in, what would be for any other group of plants, an impossible environment.
Habitats would include; Swamps, Lakes, Ponds, Streams – Essentially any area which is consistently wet will be a potential home for a Hydrophyte.
And they have evolved as essential parts of this particular ecology, providing habitat, food and carbon sequestration on a huge scale.
All in all – Though they may play a smaller role in our everyday lives, the world would be an entirely different place without the presence of this essential group of plant life – The Hydrophytes.
Hydrophytic adaptations are particularly fascinating, given how radically different they have become when compared to their Mesophytic and Xerophytic brethren.
Hydrophytes generally have either very simple, or no root system at all, making them (as a group) far less likely than other plant types to be anchored to one spot for a long time.
While some plants use their shallow root systems to anchor themselves to the submerged bed of their chosen body of water (For example – Water Lilies), others choose to float freely across the water’s surface, using unique floatation methods such as inbuilt ‘Air Sacs’ to remain buoyant.
This lack of well-developed root systems likely contributes to the simplicity witnessed in the Hydrophytic world, where plants are usually far simpler than their Mesophytic and Xerophytic cousins.
The environment within which they have adapted demands them to be more dynamic, moving with the water rather than fighting against it, and they have responded over millions of years of evolution.
As a rule most Hydrophytes have large flat leaves well-suited to floating on the water’s surface, with a large amount of Stomata which are constantly open.
The Hydrophyte world has produced some truly extraordinary plants, exhibiting adaptations unlike anything else seen across the globe. We’ve included some of the more well-known plants here to serve as examples.
- Water Lily (Lotus) – A beautiful flowering Hydrophyte revered by many cultures around the world.
- Cattail – A common reed also known by the name Bulrush.
- Kelp – A form of algae which grows among nutrient rich strips of seabed.
- Water Hyacinth – A beautiful aquatic plant with sought after lilac blossoms.
- Water Fringes – Similar in habit to the Water Lily, the Water Fringe exhibits a carpet of bright yellow blossoms along the surface of the water. A wonderful sight to see.
Last but certainly not least – The Xerophytes.
What is a Xerophyte?
Xerophytes are a family of plants who have adapted to suit arid, dry conditions. They’ve long been popular as house plants, known more commonly as Succulent, Cactus, Aloe or Euphorbia plants.
Although most commonly found in desert landscapes, Xerophytic plants can also be found amongst salt marshes, frozen landscapes and even tropical rainforests.
The Xerophyte class is a true survivor, having adapted among perhaps the most sparsely populated regions of our planet.
The range of adaptations on display within this sub-section of the plant world is truly amazing. Adapting to live in such arid environments has created some weird and wonderful plants, with such sophisticated mechanisms of moisture gathering and storage.
Similar to the Mesophyte family, Xerophytes are complex organisms. They have created extremely well-developed root systems, allowing them to access water deeper in the Earth than any other form of plant life.
Once they have achieved access to that precious water, given the environments within which most Xerophytes have evolved – it’s imperative that they store it as efficiently as is possible.
And xerophytes certainly do not disappoint when it comes to their innovative storage solutions.
Their leaves are generally very small, with thick cuticles and sunken stomata helping to prevent perspiration.
They flip the usual working-pattern seen in plant life, opening their stomata and intaking Carbon Dioxide during the cooler nights, then shutting up shop during the days in order to retain moisture.
And they even have inbuilt reservoirs within their structures, able to expand during periods of plenty in order to truly maximise their moisture-storage capabilities.
- Pineapple – Popular fruiting Xerophyte plant. The Pineapple harvest is hugely important to the economic wellbeing of many countries across the globe.
- Barbary Fig – Also known as ‘Prickly Pear’. Barbary Fig has long been harvested commercially for their edible fruits which are believed by many to carry medicinal properties.
- Peyote – A spineless cactus harvested for its potent psychoactive alkaloids. Seen as a sacred plant within various cultures.
- Bunny Ears Cactus – A species of flowering cacti native to Northern Mexico.
- Gum Arabic Tree – A beautiful flowering tree native to Africa, India and the Middle-East.
Wrapping Things Up
So there we have it! Three perfectly adapted sub-sections of the plant world, each coming up with ingenious ways to adapt to the most extreme conditions over millions of years of iterative evolution.
Hydrophytes adapting to water, Xerophytes adapting to a lack of water and Mesophytes to everything in between. It truly is a wonderful world.
As always I hope this guide has been useful. If you’d like to be kept in the loop of whatever comes next from us here at the EcoGeeks then please feel free to subscribe below.
Have a great day.