Inflorescences are described by many different characteristics including how the flowers are arranged on the peduncle, the blooming order of the flowers and how different clusters of flowers are grouped within it. These terms are general representations as plants in nature can have a combination of types.
Inflorescences usually have modified shoots foliage different from the vegetative part of the plant. Considering the broadest meaning of the term, any leaf associated with an inflorescence is called a bract. A bract is usually located at the node where the main stem of the inflorescence forms, joined to the main stem of the plant, but other bracts can exist within the inflorescence itself. They serve a variety of functions which include attracting pollinators and protecting young flowers. According to the presence or absence of bracts and their characteristics we can distinguish:
- Ebracteate inflorescences: No bracts in the inflorescence.
- Bracteate inflorescences: The bracts in the inflorescence are very specialised, sometimes reduced to small scales, divided or dissected.
- Leafy inflorescences: Though often reduced in size, the bracts are unspecialised and look like the typical leaves of the plant, so that the term flowering stem is usually applied instead of inflorescence. This use is not technically correct, as, despite their 'normal' appearance, these leaves are considered, in fact, bracts, so that 'leafy inflorescence' is preferable.
- Leafy-bracted inflorescences: Intermediate between bracteate and leafy inflorescence.
If many bracts are present and they are strictly connected to the stem, like in the family Asteraceae, the bracts might collectively be called an involucre. If the inflorescence has a second unit of bracts further up the stem, they might be called an involucel.
Plant organs can grow according to two different schemes, namely monopodial or racemose and sympodial or cymose. In inflorescences these two different growth patterns are called indeterminate and determinate respectively, and indicate whether a terminal flower is formed and where flowering starts within the inflorescence.
- Indeterminate inflorescence: Monopodial (racemose) growth. The terminal bud keeps growing and forming lateral flowers. A terminal flower is never formed.
- Determinate inflorescence: Sympodial (cymose) growth. The terminal bud forms a terminal flower and then dies out. Other flowers then grow from lateral buds.
Indeterminate and determinate inflorescences are sometimes referred to as open and closed inflorescences respectively. The indeterminate patterning of flowers is derived from determinate flowers. It is suggested that indeterminate flowers have a common mechanism that prevents terminal flower growth. Based on phylogenetic analyses, this mechanism arose independently multiple times in different species.
In an indeterminate inflorescence there is no true terminal flower and the stem usually has a rudimentary end. In many cases the last true flower formed by the terminal bud (subterminal flower) straightens up, appearing to be a terminal flower. Often a vestige of the terminal bud may be noticed higher on the stem.
Indeterminate inflorescence with a perfect acropetal maturation.
Indeterminate inflorescence with an acropetal maturation and lateral flower buds.
Indeterminate inflorescence with the subterminal flower to simulate the terminal one (vestige present)
In determinate inflorescences the terminal flower is usually the first to mature (precursive development), while the others tend to mature starting from the bottom of the stem. This pattern is called acropetal maturation. When flowers start to mature from the top of the stem, maturation is basipetal, while when the central mature first, divergent.
Determinate inflorescence with acropetal maturation
Determinate inflorescence with basipetal maturation
Determinate inflorescence with divergent maturation
As with leaves, flowers can be arranged on the stem according to many different patterns. See 'Phyllotaxis' for in-depth descriptions
Similarly arrangement of leaf in bud is called Ptyxis.
Metatopy is the placement of organs out of their normally expected position: typically metatopy occurs in inflorescences when unequal growth rates alter different areas of the axis and the organs attached to the axis.
When a single or a cluster of flower(s) is located at the axil of a bract, the location of the bract in relation to the stem holding the flower(s) is indicated by the use of different terms and may be a useful diagnostic indicator.
Typical placement of bracts include:
- Some plants have bracts that subtend the inflorescence, where the flowers are on branched stalks; the bracts are not connected to the stalks holding the flowers, but are adnate or attached to the main stem (Adnate describes the fusing together of different unrelated parts. When the parts fused together are the same, they are connately joined.)
- Other plants have the bracts subtend the pedicel or peduncle of single flowers.
Metatopic placement of bracts include:
- When the bract is attached to the stem holding the flower (the pedicel or peduncle), it is said to be recaulescent; sometimes these bracts or bracteoles are highly modified and appear to be appendages of the flower calyx. Recaulescences is the fusion of the subtending leaf with the stem holding the bud or the bud itself, thus the leaf or bract is adnate to the stem of flower.
- When the formation of the bud is shifted up the stem distinctly above the subtending leaf, it is described as concaulescent.