Throughout his life, Charles Darwin surrounded himself with flowers. When he was 10, he wrote down each time a peony bloomed in his father’s garden. When he bought a house to raise his own familY, he turned the grounds into a botanical field station where he experimented on flowers until his death. But despite his intimate familiarity with flowers, Darwin once wrote that their evolution was “an abominable mystery.”
Darwin could see for himself how successful flowering plants had become. They make up the majority of living plant species, and they dominate many of the world’s ecosystems, from rain forests to grasslands. They also dominate our farms. Out of flowers come most of the calories humans consume, in the form of foods like corn, rice and wheat. Flowers are also impressive in their sheer diversity of forms and colours, from lush, full-bodied roses to spider like orchids to calla lilies shaped like urns.
The fossil record, however, offered Darwin little enlightenment about the early evolution of flowers. At the time, the oldest fossils of flowering plants came from rocks that had formed from 100 million to 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Paleontologists found a diversity of forms, not just a few primitive forerunners.
Long after Darwin’s death in 1882, the history of flowers continued to vex scientists. But talk to experts today, and there is a note of guarded optimism. “There’s an energy that I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” said William Friedman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The discovery of new fossils is one source of that new excitement. But scientists are also finding a wealth of clues in living flowers and their genes. They are teasing apart the recipes encoded in plant DNA for building different kinds of flowers. Their research indicates that flowers evolved into their marvelous diversity in much the same way as eyes and limbs have: through the recycling of old genes for new jobs.
Until recently, scientists were divided over how flowers were related to other plants. Thanks to studies on plant DNA, their kinship is clearer. “There was every kind of idea out there, and a lot of them have been refuted,” said James A. Doyle, a paleobotanist at the University of California, Davis.
It is now clear, for example, that the closest living relatives to flowers are flowerless species that produce seeds, a group that includes pine trees and gingkos. Unfortunately, the plants are all closely related to one another, and none is more closely related to flowers than any of the others.
The plants that might document the early stages in the emergence of the flower apparently became extinct millions of years ago. “The only way to find them is through the fossils,” Dr. Doyle said.
In the past few years scientists have pushed back the fossil record of flowers to about 136 million years ago. They have also found a number of fossils of mysterious extinct seed plants, some of which produce seeds in structures that look faintly like flowers. But the most intriguing fossils are also the most fragmentary, leaving paleobotanists deeply divided over which of them might be closely related to flowers. “There’s no consensus,” Dr. Doyle said.
But there is a consensus when it comes to the early evolution of flowers themselves. By studying the DNA of many flowering plants, scientists have found that a handful of species represent the oldest lineages alive today. The oldest branch of all is represented by just one species: a shrub called Amborella that is found only on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. Water lilies and star anise represent the two next-oldest lineages alive today.
If you could travel back to 130 million years ago, you might not be impressed with the earliest flowers. “They didn’t look like they were going anywhere,” Dr. Doyle said.
Those early flowers were small and rare, living in the shadows of far more successful nonflowering plants. It took many millions of years for flowers to hit their stride. Around 120 million years ago, a new branch of flowers evolved that came to dominate many forests and explode in diversity. That lineage includes 99 percent of all species of flowering plants on Earth today, ranging from magnolias to dandelions to pumpkins. That explosion in diversity also produced the burst of flower fossils that so puzzled Darwin.
All flowers, from Amborella on, have the same basic anatomy. Just about all of them have petals or petal-like structures that surround male and female organs. The first flowers were probably small and simple, like modern Amborella flowers.
Later, in six lineages, flowers became more complicated. They evolved an inner ring of petals that became big and showy, and an outer ring of usually green, leaf like growths called sepals, which protect young flowers as they bud.