The word phytolith means “plant rocks.” Phytoliths are mineral deposits that form in and between plant cells. Any mineral deposit may be considered a phytolith, although most recent research has focused on opaline silica. Silica seems to be widespread in at least some plant families and is resistant to dissolution in a pH less than 9. Silica phytoliths therefore have the potential to be useful microfossils that can be helpful in the documentation of prehistoric environment and economy.
Identifiable shapes rather than amorphous deposits are a necessary characteristic for useful microfossils. Several plant families have long been known to be consistent accumulators of identifiable silica bodies: Gramineae (grass), Cyperaceae (sedge), and Equisetaceae (horsetail). Phytoliths from the Gramineae are especially well known; specialized silica-accumulating cells produce distinctively shaped phytoliths. However, other families have also been shown to produce significant amounts of identifiable phytoliths. Ulmaceae (elm), Fabaceae (bean), Cucurbitaceae (squash), and Compositae (sunflower) are a few examples of dicotyledonous families that commonly produce phytoliths. Some families, such as the Labiatae (mint), have yielded little or no identifiable phytoliths to date. However, further study may indicate phytolith production in particular species.