The monocots include about 60,000 species. The largest family in this group (and in the flowering plants as a whole) by number of species are the orchids (family Orchidaceae), with more than 20,000 species. About half as many species belong to the true grasses (Poaceae), which are economically the most important family of monocots. In agriculture the majority of the biomass produced comes from monocots. These include not only major grains (rice, wheat, maize, etc.), but also forage grasses, sugar cane, and the bamboos. Other economically important monocot crops include various palms (Arecaceae), bananas and plantains (Musaceae), gingers and their relatives, turmeric and cardamom (Zingiberaceae), asparagus (Asparagaceae), pineapple (Bromeliaceae), water chestnut (Cyperaceae), and leeks, onion and garlic (Amaryllidaceae). Many houseplants are monocot epiphytes. Additionally most of the horticultural bulbs, plants cultivated for their blooms, such as lilies, daffodils, irises, amaryllis, cannas, bluebells and tulips, are monocots.
The monocots or monocotyledons have, as the name implies, a single (mono-) cotyledon, or embryonic leaf, in their seeds. Historically, this feature was used to contrast the monocots with the dicotyledons or dicots which typically have two cotyledons; however modern research has shown that the dicots are not a natural group, and the term can only be used to indicate all angiosperms that are not monocots and is used in that respect here. From a diagnostic point of view the number of cotyledons is neither a particularly useful characteristic (as they are only present for a very short period in a plant's life), nor is it completely reliable. The single cotyledon is only one of a number of modifications of the body plan of the ancestral monocotyledons, whose adaptive advantages are poorly understood, but may have been related to adaption to aquatic habitats, prior to radiation to terrestrial habitats. Nevertheless, monocots are sufficiently distinctive that there has rarely been disagreement as to membership of this group, despite considerable diversity in terms of external morphology. However, morphological features that reliably characterise major clades are rare.
Thus monocots are distinguishable from other angiosperms both in terms of their uniformity and diversity. On the one hand the organisation of the shoots, leaf structure and floral configuration are more uniform than in the remaining angiosperms, yet within these constraints a wealth of diversity exists, indicating a high degree of evolutionary success. Monocot diversity includes perennial geophytes such as ornamental flowers including (orchids (Asparagales), tulips and lilies) (Liliales), rosette and succulent epiphytes (Asparagales), mycoheterotrophs (Liliales, Dioscoreales, Pandanales), all in the lilioid monocots, major cereal grains (maize, rice, barley, rye and wheat) in the grass family and forage grasses (Poales) as well as woody tree-like palm trees (Arecales), bamboo, reeds and bromeliads (Poales), bananas and ginger (Zingiberales) in the commelinid monocots, as well as both emergent (Poales, Acorales) and aroids, as well as floating or submerged aquatic plants such as seagrass (Alismatales).
The most important distinction is their growth pattern, lacking a lateral meristem (cambium) that allows for continual growth in diameter with height (secondary growth), and therefore this characteristic is a basic limitation in shoot construction. Although largely herbaceous, some arboraceous monocots reach great height, length and mass. The latter include agaves, palms, pandans, and bamboos. This creates challenges in water transport that monocots deal with in various ways. Some, such as species of Yucca, develop anomalous secondary growth, while palm trees utilise an anomalous primary growth form described as establishment growth (see Vascular system). The axis undergoes primary thickening, that progresses from internode to internode, resulting in a typical inverted conical shape of the basal primary axis (see Tillich, Figure 1). The limited conductivity also contributes to limited branching of the stems. Despite these limitations a wide variety of adaptive growth forms has resulted (Tillich, Figure 2) from epiphytic orchids (Asparagales) and bromeliads (Poales) to submarine Alismatales (including the reduced Lemnoideae) and mycotrophic Burmanniaceae (Dioscreales) and Triuridaceae (Pandanales). Other forms of adaptation include the climbing vines of Araceae (Alismatales) which use negative phototropism (skototropism) to locate host trees (i.e. the darkest area), while some palms such as Calamus manan (Arecales) produce the longest shoots in the plant kingdom, up to 185 m long. Other monocots, particularly Poales, have adopted a therophyte life form.