It’s not much to look at, but Psilotum nudum‘s naked fronds hold a cautionary tale for biologists:Psilotum looks a great deal like some of the earliest fossils of land plants. One of the earliest such fossils is Rhynia, the first specimens of which which were unearthed in Aberdeenshire around 1910, a mere 410 million years after they were originally buried. Psilotum and Rhynia are anatomically quite similar, despite the latter being 410 million years dead, and the former being very much still alive.
They both have a horizontal stem called a rhizome, from which upright stems grow. These upright stems branch into two equal sub-branches again and again and again in both species. Both plants carry reproductive structures called sporangia (below) on these branches. They both have relatively simple plumbing inside their stems, and they lack true roots and leaves, although both plants appear to be associated with symbiotic fungi.As a result of these similarities, Psilotum has often been fingered as a primitive relic of a bygone age, and – until someone corrects it – its Wikipedia entry will continue to claim:
Psilotum nudum, […] is considered a “primitive” plant – a descendent of possibly the first group of vascular plants which were widespread during the Devonian and Silurian periods.
Interpreting fossils is not at all easy, and this is not a gripe at palaeontologists. However, this tendency to see some organisms as primitive relics, and others (generally the ones we eat, or the ones we are) as advanced, is as tempting as it is wrong-headed, and it needs to be resisted. All land-plants are descendents of the first algae that started made a living on land during the Devonian, this is not a singular characteristic of Psilotum, or whatever poor organism has been tarred with the primitive brush this week.
In Psilotum‘s case, not only is dismissing the plant as a primitive relic wrong-headed, it’s completely misleading. Psilotum is not a primitive relic, because the whole concept is nonsense; but it’s not even a primitive relic on this concept’s own nonsensical terms.
Can we please let the nonsense word ‘primitive’ itself become a relic of a bygone age?
With sporangia on top.