Botany is the scientific study of plants, or multicellular organisms, that carry on photosynthesis. As a branch of biology, botany sometimes is referred to as plant science or plant biology. Botany includes a wide range of scientific subdisciplines that study the structure, growth, reproduction, metabolism, development, diseases, ecology and evolution of plants. The study of plants is important because they are a fundamental part of life on Earth, generating food, oxygen, fuel, medicine and fibers that allow other life forms to exist. Through photosynthesis they absorb carbon dioxide, a waste product generated by most animals and a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
As with other forms of life, plants can be studied at many different levels. One is the molecular level, which is concerned with the biochemical, molecular and genetic functions of plants. Another is the cellular, tissue and organelle (a discrete structure of a cell that has a specialized function) level, which studies the anatomy and physiology of plants; and the community and population level, which involves interactions within a species, with other species and with the environment.
Historically, botanists studied any living being that was not an animal. Although fungi, algae and bacteria now are members of other kingdoms, according to the currently accepted classification system, they usually still are studied in introductory botany classes.
The ancient Greeks were among the first to write about plants in a scientific way. In the fifth century B.C.E., Empedocles believed plants not only had a soul, like animals, but also had reason and common sense. Aristotle believed plants ranked between animals and inanimate objects. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus wrote two books about plants that still were in use in the 15th century. The Swedish physician-turned-botanist Carl Linné is considered the father of the systematic naming system (nomenclature), which he invented in the 18th century and still is used to give scientific names to all species, plant and otherwise.
Plants always have been convenient organisms to study scientifically because they did not pose the same ethical dilemmas as the study of animals or humans. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel wrote the first laws of inheritance, a set of primary tenets relating to the transmission of hereditary characteristics from parent organisms to their children, in the 1850s after crossing pea plants in his garden. Nearly a century later, Barbara McClintock discovered “jumping genes” and other details about inheritance by studying maize plants.
Subdisciplines of Botany
Agronomy and Crop Science
This is an agricultural science dealing with field crop production and soil management.
Algology and Phycology
This is the study of algae.
This is the study of bacteria (also considered part of microbiology).
This is the study of mosses and liverworts.
This is the study of fungi.
This is the study of plant fossils.
Plant Anatomy and Physiology
This is the study of the structure and function of plants.
Plant Cell Biology
This is the study of the structure and function of cells.
This is the study of genetic inheritance in plants.
This is the study of diseases in plants.
This is the study of ferns and their relatives.
An undergraduate degree in botany prepares students for professional employment or for graduate studies. A degree in botany also provides the foundation for further study and careers in applied fields of plant pathology, forestry, crop production, horticulture, genetics and plant breeding, plant biotechnology and environmental monitoring and control. Among the careers available to a person who enjoys the outdoors are positions as an ecologist, taxonomist, conservationist, forester and plant explorer. A person with a mathematical background might find biophysics, developmental botany, genetics, modeling or systems ecology to be exciting fields. Someone with an interest in chemistry might become a plant physiologist, plant biochemist or molecular biologist. People fascinated with microscopic organisms often choose microbiology, phycology or mycology. On a larger scale, ornamental horticulture and landscape design requires artistic use of plant form and color. And a person concerned about the world food supply might study plant pathology (diseases) or plant breeding.