A blossoming buttercup begins with a seed, but that is an abbreviated version of the longer narrative: the evolution of flowering plants. Angiosperms would come to dominate the plant world with more than 250,000 species—a fantastic diversification that supported the evolution of insects and animals—but what of the first flower's origin? Darwin called it an "abominable mystery," and paleobotanists since have been similarly baffled by their sudden appearance in the fossil record. A new discovery in northeast China, recently published in Nature, might explain Darwin's mystery.
At 125-million-years-old, it is the oldest intact fossil of a flowering plant. Displaying three-lobed leaves and a cup-shaped blossom, the ancient species, Archaefructus liaoningensis, resembles a modern-day buttercup, and is believed to be its ancestor. The discovery of this proto-flower adjusts the timeline of evolution, giving early angiosperms several more million years to evolve than Darwin had previously concluded. The ancient bloom also provides a more comprehensive evolutionary landscape on which to understand contemporary flowers. Sir Peter Crane, a paleobotanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, explains the importance of botanic classification. "It matters a lot, where they came from and what they are related to. That tells you a lot about why they are the way they are today."
NOVA's First Flower interviews the scientists behind the early discovery of Archaefructus. I worked on the companion website, and the 2007 broadcast is the source of Peter Crane's quote.
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.