In the previous chapter, we looked at the broad classification of living organisms under the system proposed by Whittaker (1969) wherein he suggested the Five Kingdom classification viz. Monera, Protista, Fungi, Animalia and Plantae. In this chapter, we will deal in detail with further classification within Kingdom Plantae popularly known as the ‘plant kingdom’.
We must stress here that our understanding of the plant kingdom has changed over time. Fungi, and members of the Monera and Protista having cell walls have now been excluded from Plantae though earlier classifications put them in the same kingdom. So, the cyanobacteria that are also referred to as blue green algae are not ‘algae’ any more. In this chapter, we will describe Plantae under Algae, Bryophytes, Pteridophytes, Gymnosperms and Angiosperms.
Let us also look at classification within angiosperms to understand some of the concerns that influenced the classification systems. The earliest systems of classification used only gross superficial morphological characters such as habit, colour, number and shape of leaves, etc. They were based mainly on vegetative characters or on the androecium structure (system given by Linnaeus). Such systems were artificial; they separated the closely related species since they were based on a few characteristics. Also, the artificial systems gave equal weightage to vegetative and sexual characteristics; this is not acceptable since we know that often the vegetative characters are more easily affected by environment. As against this, natural classification systems developed, which were based on natural affinities among the organisms and consider, not only the external features, but also internal features, like ultra- structure, anatomy, embryology and phytochemistry. Such a classification for flowering plants was given by George Bentham and Joseph Dalton Hooker.
At present phylogenetic classification systems based on evolutionary relationships between the various organisms are acceptable. This assumes that organisms belonging to the same taxa have a common ancestor. We now use information from many other sources too to help resolve difficulties in classification. These become more important when there is no supporting fossil evidence. Numerical Taxonomy which is now easily carried out using computers is based on all observable characteristics. Number and codes are assigned to all the characters and the data are then processed. In this way each character is given equal importance and at the same time hundreds of characters can be considered. Cytotaxonomy that is based on cytological information like chromosome number, structure, behaviour and chemotaxonomy that uses the chemical constituents of the plant to resolve confusions, are also used by taxonomists these days.