Plant morphology "represents a study of the development, form, and structure of plants, and, by implication, an attempt to interpret these on the basis of similarity of plan and origin." There are four major areas of investigation in plant morphology, and each overlaps with another field of the biological sciences.
First of all, morphology is comparative, meaning that the morphologist examines structures in many different plants of the same or different species, then draws comparisons and formulates ideas about similarities. When structures in different species are believed to exist and develop as a result of common, inherited genetic pathways, those structures are termed homologous. For example, the leaves of pine, oak, and cabbage all look very different, but share certain basic structures and arrangement of parts. The homology of leaves is an easy conclusion to make. The plant morphologist goes further, and discovers that the spines of cactus also share the same basic structure and development as leaves in other plants, and therefore cactus spines are homologous to leaves as well. This aspect of plant morphology overlaps with the study of plant evolution and paleobotany.
Secondly, plant morphology observes both the vegetative (somatic) structures of plants, as well as the reproductive structures. The vegetative structures of vascular plants includes the study of the shoot system, composed of stems and leaves, as well as the root system. The reproductive structures are more varied, and are usually specific to a particular group of plants, such as flowers and seeds, fern sori, and moss capsules. The detailed study of reproductive structures in plants led to the discovery of the alternation of generations found in all plants and most algae. This area of plant morphology overlaps with the study of biodiversity and plant systematics.
Thirdly, plant morphology studies plant structure at a range of scales. At the smallest scales are ultrastructure, the general structural features of cells visible only with the aid of an electron microscope, and cytology, the study of cells using optical microscopy. At this scale, plant morphology overlaps with plant anatomy as a field of study. At the largest scale is the study of plant growth habit, the overall architecture of a plant. The pattern of branching in a tree will vary from species to species, as will the appearance of a plant as a tree, herb, or grass.
Fourthly, plant morphology examines the pattern of development, the process by which structures originate and mature as a plant grows. While animals produce all the body parts they will ever have from early in their life, plants constantly produce new tissues and structures throughout their life. A living plant always has embryonic tissues. The way in which new structures mature as they are produced may be affected by the point in the plant's life when they begin to develop, as well as by the environment to which the structures are exposed. A morphologist studies this process, the causes, and its result. This area of plant morphology overlaps with plant physiology and ecology.
A plant morphologist makes comparisons between structures in many different plants of the same or different species. Making such comparisons between similar structures in different plants tackles the question of why the structures are similar. It is quite likely that similar underlying causes of genetics, physiology, or response to the environment have led to this similarity in appearance. The result of scientific investigation into these causes can lead to one of two insights into the underlying biology:
Understanding which characteristics and structures belong to each type is an important part of understanding plant evolution. The evolutionary biologist relies on the plant morphologist to interpret structures, and in turn provides phylogenies of plant relationships that may lead to new morphological insights.