Plant Structures: Stems

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questionThought Questions

(Explain the science behind the questions.)

•  My trees have been under severe drought stress for the past few years. Why are they still showing stress when there was good moisture this year?

•  Over the winter, rabbits girdled my tree all the way around down to the wood. My neighbor said it would die, but it leafed out nicely. Will it be OK?

•  I planted several new trees over the past few years. How can I evaluate how they are growing? How can I tell if roots are established so I can begin structural pruning?

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Stems are the part of a plant that bear leaves and flowers and they are the continuation of the vascular system pipeline that starts in the roots.


  • Framework for leaves, flowers and seeds
  • Continuation of vascular system carrying water and minerals from the soil, and sugars manufactured in leaves throughout the plant.
  • Green stems also manufacture food (photosynthesis).
  • Food storage
  • Horticultural uses

  • Aesthetic (winter interest in the landscape, appealing bark, etc.)
  • Feed and food
  • Fuel
  • Plant identification
  • Propagation (cuttings and layering)
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Wood industry and construction


Internal Features

  • Apical meristem – Tissues at the tip of a stem capable of cell division, gives rise to stem elongation.

  • Epidermis – Outer layer of wax-coated cells that provides protection and covering.

  • Cortex – Primary tissues of a stem externally bound by the epidermis and internally by the phloem.

  • Vascular bundle

  • Xylem tissues – Distribute water and minerals from the roots up through the plant. Xylem provides the structural support in plants, becoming the “woody ” tissue.

  • Cambium tissues are the single-celled layer of meristematic (dividing) tissues that continually divides to form phloem tissues toward the outside and xylem tissues toward the inside. Cell division of the cambium tissue adds width to the stem.

  • Phloem tissues (inner bark) – distribute sugars (products of photosynthesis) throughout the plant.  It is important to understand what happens when the phloem is blocked, as when a tree is girdled with a tie or rope.  The stem often enlarges just above the blockage due to the sugars moving down from the leaves for distribution throughout the plant.  Tissues below the blockage slowly starve.  Roots die back, eventually leading to death of the plant.

  • Pith – Center of dicot plant stems. In some plants the pith breaks down forming a hollow stem. In older woody plants, the pith is filled with rigid xylem wood fiber.

cross section of stem
Figure 1.  Cross section of stem

Monocot or Dicot

Monocot and dicot stems differ in the arrangement of their vascular system. In monocot stems, the xylem and phloem are paired in bundles, with bundles dispersed throughout the stem. [Figure 2.]

Monocot and dicot stems differ in the arrangement of their vascular system. In monocot stems, the xylem and phloem are paired in bundles, with bundles dispersed throughout the stem. [Figure 2.]

Cross section of Monocot stem
Figure 2.  Monocot stem cross-section

In woody dicot plants, the rings grow to make a complete ring around the stem. Xylem growth makes the “annual rings” used to tell a tree’s age. In woody dicot plants, water and mineral movement occurs in the more recent years of xylem rings. Drought reduces the size of the annual rings (size of xylem tubes) and thus the potential for water and nutrient movement. Multi-year droughts, with their corresponding reduction in xylem size, have long-term impacts on plant growth potential. [Figure 3]

Cross section of herbaceous and woody dicot stems
Figure 3.  Cross section of herbaceous (left) and woody (right) dicot stems

Woody dicot stems are used in tree and shrub identification. Features to look at include the cross section shape of the pith (rounded, star, or triangular) and whether the pith is solid, hollow, or chambered. [Figure 4]

stem pith

Figure 4.  Stem pith is used in plant identification. It may be solid, hollow or chambered. In a cross section, the pith may be rounded, triangular or star shaped.

External Features

  • Bud – A stem's primary growing point. Buds can be either leaf buds (vegetative) or flower buds (reproductive). These buds can be very similar in appearance, but flower buds tend to be plumper than leaf buds.

  • Terminal bud – Bud at the tip of a stem. In many plants, auxin (a plant hormone) released from the terminal bud suppresses development of lateral buds, thereby focusing the growth of the plant upward rather than outward. If the terminal bud is removed during pruning (or natural events) the lateral buds will develop and the stem becomes bushy.

  • Lateral buds grow from the leaf axils on the side of a stem.

  • Bud scales – A modified leaf protecting and covering a bud

  • Naked bud – Bud without a protective bud scale; characteristic of the Viburnum family.

Terminal bud and lateral buds

Figure 5. External features of a stem

  • Leaf scar – Mark left on stem where leaf was attached. Often used in woody plant identification.

  • Bundle scar – Marks left in the leaf scar from the vascular tissue attachment. Used in woody plant identification.

  • Lenticel – Pores that allow for gas exchange.

  • Terminal bud scale scars or annual growth rings – Marks left on stem from the terminal bud scales in previous years. Terminal bud scale scars are an external measure of annual growth. Therefore, they are important in assessing plant vigor. [Figure 6]

Terminal bud scar used to evaluate tree vigor
Figure 6.  Terminal bud scars or annual growth rings

  • Node – Segment of stem where leaves and lateral buds are attached. [Figure 7]

                    Note: Roots do not have nodes.

  • Internode – Section of a stem between two nodes.

Node and internode

Figure 7.  Node and internode

  • Bark – Protective outer tissue that develops with age. Used in woody plant identification.

  • Bud type – The type of bud is also used in plant identification.  Figure 8 illustrates bud types used in the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.  [Figure 8].

Types of buds

Figure 8. Bud types.

All the features previously described can tell the knowledgeable horticulturist a great deal about a plant pertinent to its identification and health. These are common terms that frequently appear in literature.

Common Types of Stems

  • Woody Plants

  • Shoot – First year growth on a woody or herbaceous plant.
  • Twig – Woody stem less than one year old.
  • Branch – Woody stem more than one year old.
  • Trunk – Main support stem(s) of woody plants.
  • Water sprouts – Juvenile adventitious shoots arising on a branch. Generally very rapid, upright-growth, and poorly attached to the main limb.
  • Suckers – Juvenile adventitious shoots arising from the roots, generally rapid, upright-growing.
  • Canes – Stems with relatively large pith and usually living for only one to two years (roses, grapes, blackberries, and raspberries).

Modified Stems

  • BulbBulb – Thickened, underground stem with fleshy storage leaves attached at base (tulips, lilies, onions)

  • CormCorm – Short, thickened, underground stem with reduced scaly leaves (gladiolus)

  • Crown (strawberry plant)Crown – Compressed stem having leaves and flowers growing above and roots beneath (strawberry plant, dandelion, African violet)

  • Runner (strawberry plants)Stolon (or runner) –Horizontal, above-ground stems often forming roots and/or plantlets at their tips or nodes (strawberry runners, spider plants)

  • RhizomeRhizome – Horizontal, underground stem, typically forms roots and plantlets at tips or nodes (iris, bentgrass, cannas)

  • SpurSpur – Very compressed, fruiting twig found on some apples, pears, cherries, and ginkgo.

  • Twining stems – Modified stems used for climbing. Some twist clockwise (hops, honeysuckle); others twist counter-clockwise (pole beans, Dutchman’s pipe).

  • Tuber (potato plant)Tuber – Enlarged rhizome containing stored food. (The “eyes” of an Irish potato are the modified buds.)

  • Tuberous stem – Short, flattened, modified storage stem (tuberous begonias, dahlias). Unlike tubers, which have buds scattered all over, tuberous stems only have leaf buds on the "up" end.

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Authors: David Whiting, Consumer Horticulture Specialist (retired), Colorado State University Extension; with Michael Roll and Larry Vickerman (former CSU Extension employees). Line drawings by Scott Johnson and David Whiting.

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Revised September 2015

Updated Thursday, January 14, 2016 by Mary Small

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