Stem Modifications

Stem Modifications

Some plant species have modified stems that are especially suited to a particular habitat and environment (see the figure below). A rhizome is a modified stem that grows horizontally underground and has nodes and internodes. Vertical shoots may arise from the buds on the rhizome of some plants, such as ginger and ferns. Corms are similar to rhizomes, except they are more rounded and fleshy (such as in gladiolus). Corms contain stored food that enables some plants to survive the winter.

Stolons are stems that run almost parallel to the ground, or just below the surface, and can give rise to new plants at the nodes. Runners are a type of stolon that runs above the ground and produces new clone plants at nodes at varying intervals: strawberries are an example. Tubers are modified stems that may store starch, as seen in the potato (Solanum sp.). Tubers arise as swollen ends of stolons, and contain many adventitious or unusual buds (familiar to us as the “eyes” on potatoes). A bulb, which functions as an underground storage unit, is a modification of a stem that has the appearance of enlarged fleshy leaves emerging from the stem or surrounding the base of the stem, as seen in the iris.

 Photos show six types modified stems: (a) Lumpy white ginger rhizomes are connected together. A green shoot projects from one end. (b) The carrion flower corm is conical-shaped, with white roots spreading from the bottom of the cone, just above the dirt. (c) Two grass plants are connected by a thick, brown stem. (d) Strawberry plants are connected together by a red runner. (e) The part of the potato plant that humans consume is a tuber. (f) The part of the onion plant that humans consume is a bulb.

Stem modifications enable plants to thrive in a variety of environments. Shown are (a) ginger (Zingiber officinale) rhizomes, (b) a carrion flower (Amorphophallus titanum) corm (c) Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana) stolons, (d) strawberry (Fragaria ananassa) runners, (e) potato (Solanum tuberosum) tubers, and (f) red onion (Allium) bulbs. (credit a: modification of work by Maja Dumat; credit c: modification of work by Harry Rose; credit d: modification of work by Rebecca Siegel; credit e: modification of work by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS; credit f: modification of work by Stephen Ausmus, USDA ARS)

You can watch botanist Wendy Hodgson, of Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, explain how agave plants were cultivated for food hundreds of years ago in the Arizona desert in this video: Finding the Roots of an Ancient Crop.

Some aerial modifications of stems are tendrils and thorns (see the figure below). Tendrils are slender, twining strands that enable a plant (like a vine or pumpkin) to seek support by climbing on other surfaces. Thorns are modified branches appearing as sharp outgrowths that protect the plant; common examples include roses, Osage orange and devil’s walking stick.

 Photo shows (a) a plant clinging to a stick by wormlike tendrils and (b) two large, red thorns on a red stem.

Found in southeastern United States, (a) buckwheat vine (Brunnichia ovata) is a weedy plant that climbs with the aid of tendrils. This one is shown climbing up a wooden stake. (b) Thorns are modified branches. (credit a: modification of work by Christopher Meloche, USDA ARS; credit b: modification of work by “macrophile”/Flickr)

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