Ferns are vascular plants differing from lycophytes by having true leaves (megaphylls). They differ from seed plants (gymnosperms and angiosperms) in their mode of reproduction—lacking flowers and seeds. Like all other vascular plants, they have a life cycle referred to as alternation of generations, characterized by a diploid sporophytic and a haploid gametophytic phase. Unlike the gymnosperms and angiosperms, the ferns' gametophyte is a free-living organism.
Life cycle of a typical fern:
- A sporophyte (diploid) phase produces haploid spores by meiosis.
- A spore grows by mitosis into a gametophyte, which typically consists of a photosynthetic prothallus.
- The gametophyte produces gametes (often both sperm and eggs on the same prothallus) by mitosis.
- A mobile, flagellate sperm fertilizes an egg that remains attached to the prothallus.
- The fertilized egg is now a diploid zygote and grows by mitosis into a sporophyte (the typical "fern" plant).