Photo by Agnieszka Palmowska

The oldest plants in the world are considered “living fossils” that have survived for millions of years and are thriving on our planet.

Thomas McLoughlin, author of the book A GUIDE TO PENNSYLVANIAN (CARBONIFEROUS) AGE PLANT FOSSILS OF SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA, has written a book about plant fossils of the central Appalachian coalfields. Ancient plants are fascinating, and they’re also excellent because they’re the ones who help supply planet Earth with oxygen.

With that in mind, let’s examine some of the oldest plants the world currently has. Astonishment will be your main feeling at how old some of these are and what they do.

1. Cycads

There is considerable controversy concerning older fossils that may have come from the Carboniferous, around 100 million years before the Permian and where cycads first appeared. Cycad fossils go back to at least the beginning of the Permian period (about 280 million years ago). Gymnosperms like cycads have exposed seeds. This makes them easy to identify by the giant seeds that protrude from the plant’s crown.

Cycads are among the oldest plants and have among the longest lifespans. They grow exceptionally slowly and have a lifespan of upwards of 1,000 years. People frequently use Cycads for bonsai and ornamental gardens and greenhouses because of their distinctive appearance.

2. Moss

The world’s oldest plants are mosses, whose ancestors lived roughly 470 million years ago. Moss is scarce in fossilized form because it is delicate and soft. The Carboniferous (358.9–298.9 million years ago) era has some of the earliest confirmed moss fossils. However, there is evidence that moss may have existed far earlier.

Around 12,000 different moss species is currently present in various settings worldwide. Moss spreads through the release of spores, similar to many extinct plant species.

3. Water Caltrop

The water caltrop (ling nut, mustache nut, buffalo nut, singhada, devil pod, lin kok, or ling kio) is a plant that floats in the water and is easily identified by its elaborate fruits, which have edible seeds. It’s one of the oldest plants in the world. The oldest one dates back to Cretaceous Alaska (around 66 – 145 million years ago). Today, there are just three species that exist.

The water caltrop is potentially an endangered or invasive species, depending on where it is found. Although one acre of the plant may grow into 100 acres in just one year, water caltrops are considered invasive in North America. Even if they’re not one of the plant fossils of the central Appalachian coalfields, it’s certainly among the oldest plants on our planet.

4. Agathis

Coniferous agathis, also known as kauri or dammar, are old trees that date back to the Carboniferous period (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago). They’re sole surviving members of the Araucariaceae genus of trees. It’s genus primarily perished during the very same mass extinction disaster that took out the dinosaurs. However, there are the few types of Agathis that remain in existence.

About 22 Agathis species have been recognized, with the majority being found in the Southern Hemisphere and Southeast Asia in nations including Malaysia, Borneo, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. Large trunks with a few branches beneath the crown are a distinctive feature of mature Agathis trees.

The most basic species of moths currently in existence, the caterpillars of the Agathiphaga genus (commonly known as kauri moths), consume the seeds from certain Agathis trees.

5. Welwitschia

The Welwitschia is the sole surviving species within its genus, order, and family, similar to most of the plants on this list. The Namib Desert is home to the unusual and weird plant known as Welwitschia. The plant is named Friedrich Welwitsch after the Austrian physician and botanist who described it in 1859.

Two leaves, the base of the stem, and roots make up an adult welwitschia. These two leaves, which are permanent and were present whenever the plant emerged as a seedling, are a unique quality that only Welwitschia has.

Most Welwitschia plants survive for 500 to 600 years on average. Larger specimens are thought to be around 2,000 years old.

Learn More About Ancient and the Oldest Plants in the World

Now that you know some of the oldest plants in the world, it’s time to learn about plant fossils of the central Appalachian coalfields. You can better understand them with Thomas McLoughlin’s book, A GUIDE TO PENNSYLVANIAN (CARBONIFEROUS) AGE PLANT FOSSILS OF SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA.

Grab a copy of the book today, and while you’re still here, check out some of our other blogs and read more about ancient trees and fossilized forests!

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