Plants can be classified in many ways, but flowering versus non-flowering is one of the most meaningful. According to botanists writing on the Tree of Life website, flowering plants are the most numerous and diverse plants found on Earth today, testifying to their evolutionary advantages. Non-flowering plants not only illustrate the evolutionary history of the flowering plants but demonstrate effective adaptations that have allowed them to survive for millions of years. Understanding the difference between flowering and non-flowering plants provides the foundation for understanding botany, taxonomy and plant evolution.
Determine if the plant is a moss. Mosses are small and grow close to the ground in shady, damp locations. The leaves are usually a single cell thick with a thin midrib and are arranged in a spiral pattern around a central stem. Mosses do not have roots but cling to rocks and tree roots using a structure called a rhizoid. Moss is a non-flowering plant.
Inspect the plant and decide if it is a fern. Ferns have feathery fronds and underground stemlike structures called rhizomes. Spores form in small patches on the undersides of the leaves. Ferns are non-flowering plants.
Find where the plant produces seeds. Non-flowering plants do not produce seeds. Non-flowering seed-bearing plants, or gymnosperms, develop exposed seeds, usually on cones. Flowering plants encase their seeds inside of an ovary.
Determine if the plant produces a fruit. Because fruit develops around the plant's ovary, only flowering plants produce fruit. Other flowering plants produce seeds with wings, parachutes and other means to transport them away from the parent plant. Highly mobile seeds are unique to flowering plants.
Cut carefully into a seed and find the embryo. If it has only one or two primitive leaves, it is a flowering plant. If it has more than two primitive leaves, it is a non-flowering plant.
Press your fingernail into the wood, if the plant is a tree. If the wood is soft and yields easily, the tree is a non-flowering tree. If the wood is hard to scratch or dent, the tree is a flowering tree.
If your students are separating flowering and non-flowering plants as part of a classroom activity, extend their observations by having them predict which type of plant---flowering or non-flowering---they think will be most successful based on their observations.