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Plants are one of the two groups into which all living things were traditionally divided; the other is animals. The division goes back at least as far as Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), who distinguished between plants, which generally do not move, and animals, which often are mobile to catch their food. Much later, when Linnaeus (1707–1778) created the basis of the modern system of scientific classification, these two groups became the kingdoms Vegetabilia (later Metaphyta or Plantae) and Animalia (also called Metazoa). Since then, it has become clear that the plant kingdom as originally defined included several unrelated groups, and the fungi and several groups of algae were removed to new kingdoms. However, these organisms are still often considered plants, particularly in popular contexts.
Outside of formal scientific contexts, the term “plant” implies an association with certain traits, such as being multicellular, possessing cellulose, and having the ability to carry out photosynthesis
When the name Plantae or plant is applied to a specific group of organisms or taxon, it usually refers to one of four concepts. From least to most inclusive, these four groupings are:
Name(s) Scope Description
Land plants, also known as Embryophyta Plantae sensu strictissimo This group includes the liverworts, hornworts, mosses, and vascular plants, as well as fossil plants similar to these surviving groups (e.g., Metaphyta Whittaker, 1969, Plantae Margulis, 1971).
Green plants, also known as Viridiplantae, Viridiphyta or Chlorobionta Plantae sensu stricto This group includes the green algae, and land plants that emerged within them, including stoneworts. The names given to these groups vary considerably as of July 2011. Viridiplantae encompass a group of organisms that have cellulose in their cell walls, possess chlorophylls a and b and have plastids that are bound by only two membranes that are capable of storing starch. It is this clade that is mainly the subject of this article (e.g., Plantae Copeland, 1956).
Archaeplastida, Plastida or Primoplantae Plantae sensu lato This group comprises the green plants above plus Rhodophyta (red algae) and Glaucophyta (glaucophyte algae). This clade includes the organisms that eons ago acquired their chloroplasts directly by engulfing cyanobacteria (e.g., Plantae Cavalier-Smith, 1981).
Old definitions of plant Plantae sensu amplo Old classifications placed diverse algae, fungi or bacteria in Plantae (e.g., Plantae or Vegetabilia Linnaeus, Plantae Haeckel 1866, Metaphyta Haeckel, 1894, Plantae Whittaker, 1969).
Another way of looking at the relationships between the different groups that have been called “plants” is through a cladogram, which shows their evolutionary relationships. The evolutionary history of plants is not yet completely settled, but one accepted relationship between the three groups described above is shown below. Those which have been called “plants” are in bold.
Glaucophyta (glaucophyte algae)
Rhodophyta (red algae)
Chlorophyta (part of green algae)
streptophyte algae (part of green algae)
Charales (stoneworts, often included
in green algae)
land plants or embryophytes
groups traditionally called “algae”
The way in which the groups of green algae are combined and named varies considerably between authors.