A new portrait of the world’s first flower is unveiled

Reconstruction of sex organs and petallike parts gives clues to ancient flowers’ origin

First flower reconstruction

FLOWER POWER  This 3-D reconstruction reveals what the first flowers may have looked like. Female reproductive organs (green), male reproductive organs (yellow), and petallike structures (white) are shown.

H. Sauquet and Jürg Schönenberger

Our view of the earliest flowers just bloomed. A new reconstruction, the most detailed to date, suggests the flowers were bisexual, with more than five female reproductive organs, or carpels, and more than 10 male reproductive organs, or stamen. Petallike structures, grouped in sets of three, surrounded the sex organs, researchers report August 1 in Nature Communications.

Flowering plants comprise roughly 90 percent of plants on Earth. Researchers think they evolved from a common ancestor that lived about 140 million years ago. But it has been hard to reconstruct the structure of such ancient blooms because so few fossils have been found.

In the new study, Hervé Sauquet of the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, and colleagues combined models of flower evolution with a database of features for 792 species of flowering plants, and data from the fossil record. The new picture of ancient flowers suggests some blossoms lost their bisexuality with time. Also, modern blooms lost some of their whorls, the concentric layers of different flower parts. In some flowers, whorls dropped from at least four to two in petals and the leaflike structures at the base of a bloom, and from four to one in stamen, the team concludes. The finding suggests that natural selection pushed the plants to a less complex floral plan over time.

photo of Ashley Yeager

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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