Paleobotany is important in the reconstruction of ancient ecological systems and climate, known as paleoecology and paleoclimatology respectively; and is fundamental to the study of green plant development and evolution. Paleobotany has also become important to the field of archaeology, primarily for the use of phytoliths in relative dating and in paleoethnobotany.
The emergence of paleobotany as a scientific discipline can be seen in the early 19th century, especially in the works of the German palaeontologist Ernst Friedrich von Schlotheim, the Czech (Bohemian) nobleman and scholar Kaspar Maria von Sternberg, and the French botanist Adolphe-Théodore Brongniart.
Macroscopic remains of true vascular plants are first found in the fossil record during the Silurian Period of the Paleozoic era. Some dispersed, fragmentary fossils of disputed affinity, primarily spores and cuticles, have been found in rocks from the Ordovician Period in Oman, and are thought to derive from liverwort- or moss-grade fossil plants (Wellman, Osterloff & Mohiuddin 2003).
An important early land plant fossil locality is the Rhynie Chert, found outside the village of Rhynie in Scotland. The Rhynie chert is an Early Devonian sinter (hot spring) deposit composed primarily of silica. It is exceptional due to its preservation of several different clades of plants, from mosses and lycopods to more unusual, problematic forms. Many fossil animals, including arthropods and arachnids, are also found in the Rhynie Chert, and it offers a unique window on the history of early terrestrial life.
Plant-derived macrofossils become abundant in the Late Devonian and include tree trunks, fronds, and roots. The earliest tree was thought to be Archaeopteris, which bears simple, fern-like leaves spirally arranged on branches atop a conifer-like trunk (Meyer-Berthaud, Scheckler & Wendt 1999), though it is now known to be the recently discovered Wattieza.
Widespread coal swamp deposits across North America and Europe during the Carboniferous Period contain a wealth of fossils containing arborescent lycopods up to 30 meters tall, abundant seed plants, such as conifers and seed ferns, and countless smaller, herbaceous plants.