Despite the prominence of flowers today, scientists still aren’t sure where the world’s first blossoms came from. Over 360,000 species of modern plants use flowers to attract pollinators for reproduction, but how did the first flower come to be? According to new research, the answer might begin with an early magnolia.
Early flowers decorated the Earth during the time of the dinosaurs, 250 million years ago. Unfortunately, unlike dinosaurs with bones and scales, prehistoric flowers were far too fragile to leave much fossil evidence. This means that most of the answers to questions scientists have about their early origins are left to speculation.
In an effort to find some answers, an international team of botanists recently joined forces to reconstruct the features of the first flower. Instead of relying on the fossil record, they used compilations of the characteristics of over 800 contemporary flowers to guide the search back to the beginning. Through this painstaking process, the team looked back through the long history of flower evolution until they settled on the traits that most likely existed in the chosen flowers’ common ancestor.
Their overall consensus? Earth’s first flower had a passing resemblance to the modern magnolia. Despite its familiar appearance, this first flower had some unexpected characteristics. The plant had both male and female pollinating parts in the center. Likewise, while botanists previously thought early flower petals spiraled around the center, this research reveals that concentric circles of petals are far more likely. The number of petal rings in this flower also reveals that flowers may have simplified in structure over time as they became more efficient at attracting pollinating insects.
This research improves our understanding of early flowers, while leaving the question of their origin unanswered. Where did this first flower come from? That answer may lie with the next botanical breakthrough.