by Rob Sproule
The magic of dinosaurs is in their ability to transform us into children with a single thought. Conjure an epic battle between a Tyrannosaurus and a Triceratops in your mind’s eye and, no matter how old you are, imagination takes over.
Contrary to the movies, dinosaurs aren’t making a comeback anytime soon. We are, however, surrounded by the prehistoric plants they knew, loved, and stomped on. Many of us have dinosaurs in our home; they’re plants that haven’t significantly changed in 100 million years (give or take).
As themed gardening becomes more popular, a few people have asked me about what plants they’d want to include in a prehistoric garden. I tell them to avoid flowers of any kind (see below) and to populate their garden with ample lava rocks, mosses, lichens, and the plants below.
What Makes Prehistoric Plants Different?
Just like the giants that once walked among them, there’s something about prehistoric plants that stirs the imagination. In the grand scale of things, plants evolved about 450 million years ago, and they weren’t very attractive.
I’ll skip the bewildering timescale, but green goo led to algae, algae to liverworts, liverworts to mosses, mosses to club mosses which led to… wait for it… ferns. After ferns ruled for a while, seeds evolved, and a host of gymnosperms (plants with seeds but not flowers) sprung up, including conifers, cycads, and gingkos.
Flowering plants (angiosperms), dominate now but arrived fairly late to the party, only appearing in the fossil record about 130 million years ago. This puts them in the Cretaceous, the last and definitely the coolest epoch of the dinosaurs. By the time they diversified enough to be competitive with the gymnosperms, the meteor had fallen.
Appearing during the early Carboniferous (around 350 million years ago), ferns came before flowers, dinosaurs, and even seeds! They got it right the first time though, because the essentials of fern physiology are the same now as before the thunder-lizards.
Modern ferns have been hybridized into countless variations of size, colour, and texture. Most tropical species, with notable exceptions like the giant Australian Tree Fern, are easy to care for in the home, with some species (like Bostons) even removing toxins from the air.
Ferns are the old souls of the garden. While they exude history as living fossils, they also bring a dignified and quiet grace. It’s hard to imagine a prehistoric themed garden that’s not teeming with ferns.
Even if you’re not familiar with the term “cycad,” you’d probably recognize a Sago or Zamia palm. Cycads are one of the first gymnosperms and evolved during the early Permian (275-ish million years ago), alongside primitive dinosaurs like the lumbering Dimetrodon (the cool-looking sail back critter).
Without flowers to attract pollinators, cycads have evolved clever ways to get their seeds pollinated, including symbiotic relationships with certain beetles. They make popular houseplants and grow slowly, only sending up one flush of leaves – along with dramatic seed cones – per year.
Sago and Zamia palms are far and away the most popular houseplant varieties, although collectors often dabble in some very exotic species. They’re short, stout, and woody plants with the same kind of charm as Gimli the dwarf.