Plants and growth

What are plants?

Plants are living things that grow from the soil and turn light from the Sun into food. Plants can be big or small, from giant trees to tiny patches of moss.

Plants use a process called photosynthesis to turn sunlight into food in their leaves. They can then use this food to grow. To help them do this, they also need water and nutrients that they take from the soil with their roots, and carbon dioxide that they absorb from the air.

Top 10 facts

  1. Plants turn light from the Sun into food that they need to grow.
  2. Plants also need water and nutrients from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air.
  3. Animals can eat plants so that they can use the food the plants created to grow too. Animals can’t turn energy from the sun into food so they have to get it by eating plants or by eating other animals.
  4. The biggest type of plant on earth is a tree called the giant redwood. Some of these trees are as tall as a 15-storey building, and up to 3,500 years old.
  5. Most plants reproduce by creating seeds using pollen from other plants of the same type.
  6. Plants use flowers to attract insects to carry pollen from one plant to the next.
  7. Flowers contain a sugary liquid called ‘nectar’ that the insects eat and while they are in the flower, they get pollen on them that they carry to the next flower they go to.
  8. Some plants spread their seeds by letting them float on the wind, other plants encourage animals to eat them and some plants just drop them on the ground.
  9. Not all plants get all their energy from sunlight. The Venus flytrap and pitcher plants trap and eat insects!
  10. Some people are allergic to pollen. All the pollen in the air in the spring makes them sneeze. This is called ‘hayfever’.

Did you know?

  • Plants need light to grow. If you put one plant on a windowsill in the sunlight, and one plant in a dark cupboard, the plant in the sunlight will be green and healthy and the plant in the cupboard will start to die.
  • Brightly coloured flowers look very pretty to us, but that’s not why plants grow them. The bright colours and patterns on the flower petals are very attractive to insects. The insects come to the flowers to drink nectar, and they carry pollen from one plant to the next.
  • When a plant has been pollinated, it creates a seed (or lots of seeds). These seeds will make the next generation of plants. A seed contains the start of a new plant and some food to help it grow until it’s big enough to get food on its own.
  • When a seed sprouts and starts to grow, it is called ‘germination’. You can see germination in action by taking some seeds and putting them on a damp piece of kitchen towel in a dark cupboard. This makes the seed think it’s in some moist soil, and it will start to grow after a few days.
  • Lots of types of animal only eat plants. They are called ‘herbivores’.
  • The huge variety of fruit and vegetables that you find in the supermarket doesn’t just turn up there by chance. They have to be carefully grown and looked after. People who grow plants for people to eat are called farmers.

Can you spot all these images in the gallery?

  • A man sitting at the base of a giant redwood tree (this is the third largest redwood tree in the world)
  • A honey bee extracting nectar
  • A hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower
  • Looking up at a giant redwood tree
  • Lots of different kinds of fruits. All of these contain seeds
  • Lavender growing in a field
  • A meadow
  • A sundew swamp plant
  • Tulips

Gallery

About

Plants often go to a lot of trouble to attract animals that will help them pollinate their flowers or spread their seeds. Some flowers are shaped so that only certain kinds of insects or birds are able to get into the flower to collect the nectar.

Sunflowers grow into tall flowers very quickly. If you plant sunflowers in different places in the garden – some in shady corners, some in sunny spots – you can see which ones grow the fastest by measuring them every day.

Animals eat plants to get the food that they need to grow because only plants can convert energy from the Sun into food. Even animals like lions and tigers that only eat meat rely on plants for their food because the animals that the lions and tigers eat get their food from plants. This is called the food chain.

Insects aren’t the only type of creatures that plants use to help with pollination. Some small birds like the hummingbird or small bats are involved in the pollination process too.

When a flower has been pollinated, seeds will develop in the ovaries at the bottom of the flower. These seeds will grow into plants of the same species and the plant will use animals, wind or an explosive seed pod to spread them around.

Some seeds are very light, like the seeds from a dandelion, and plants use the wind to carry these long distances. Other seeds grow in pods like peas – when these pods dry out, the pod will burst and fire the seeds away from the plant.

Many plants use animals to spread their seeds, and they can do this in different ways. Some seeds have hooks on them so that they catch on fur or skin, and the animal carries them a long way before the seed falls off. Some seeds develop into fruits – this is when the flesh of the ovary that the seed is in grows into something that animals like to eat (like tomatoes, cherries or apples) – the animals eat the fruit and then either spit out the seeds or they come out in their poo.

Carnivorous plants are plants that also eat meat. They use sticky pads or slippery tubes to trap animals (mostly insects) inside them and then they dissolve them and eat them. Venus flytraps and pitcher plants are examples of these.

Some plants live for a very short amount of time before they flower and spread their seeds. Many types of plant that we like to eat (like tomatoes or cucumbers) only live for one year and die in the winter. Other plants can live for several years and some plants like trees can live for hundreds, or even thousands of years!

Words to know:

Bulb – a form some plants take when they are dormant; some plants like daffodils or onions survive the winter as a bulb under the soil, and grow new stalks and leaves in the spring
Carpel – the female reproductive parts of a flower; it receives pollen from other plants and protects seeds while they develop
Deciduous – deciduous trees are ones that shed their leaves in winter; leaves on these trees are normally wide and flat
Evergreen – evergreen trees (also called conifers) are ones that keep their leaves all year around; they often have leaves shaped like needles
Flower – a flower contains the reproductive parts of a plant; they are often brightly coloured to attract insects
Fruit – flesh surrounding a seed or seeds that makes it attractive for animals to eat them
Germination – the process of a seed starting to grow to create a new plant
Leaves – plants have these on their branches or stem, and normally use them to make food from sunlight; this is called photosynthesis.
Ovary – a chamber at the base of the carpel; this contains ovules that are fertilised by pollen to create seeds
Nectar – a sugary liquid that is found in many flowers; nectar attracts insects to drink it and encourages them to travel from flower to flower spreading pollen
Petal – special leaves that are part of a flower. They are often brightly coloured to attract insects
Photosynthesis – the process plants use to make food from sunlight; it also needs carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the soil
Pollen – pollen is needed to create seeds to grow new plants; sometimes pollen is carried on the wind, and sometimes it is carried from plant to plant by insects
Seed – seeds are created using pollen from other plants; they are a new plant and normally need some food to help it start to grow
Stalk/stem – the central part of the plant that all the leaves and branches connect to; in trees, this is called the trunk
Stamen – the male reproductive parts of the flower; they are covered in pollen that either rubs off on passing insects or is blown away by the wind
Stigma – this is at the top of the carpel; its job is to catch pollen that is floating on the wind or is on the back of an insect that has come to the flower
Style – a tube in the centre of the carpel to take pollen to the ovary
Tree – large plants that live a long time, have a very tough, woody stem called a trunk, and normally have lots and lots of leaves and a large number of branches
Tuber – part of the stem or root used to store food by the plant; potatoes and carrots are tubers
Vegetable – bits of plant we eat that aren’t fruits; most vegetables are the root, stem or leaves of the plant

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