Organic gardeners will enjoy tonight’s rebroadcast of the 2007 NOVA documentary First Flower (8 p.m. on PBS; check your local listings).
Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, First Flower recounts the scientific mystery behind Archaefructus—an ancient fossil discovered in China in 1998, which a pair of researchers has touted as the mother of all flowering plants. A long-stemmed aquatic plant with flowers that lack petals, Archaefructus dates from approximately 120 million years, making it contemporary with the dinosaurs.
“Archaefructus is clearly a very early flowering plant,” says Chicago paleontologist Sir Peter Crane, one of the scientists featured in the film, and the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. But exactly where it fits on the family tree of modern flowering plants “is not at all certain,” he says.
To Crane, the key to Archaefructus is its unusual structure, rather than its potential status as the ancestor of all flowering plants. If the reproductive parts preserved on the fossil are actually just one flower, this would make it really quite strange, he says. On the other hand, if Archaefructus had multiple flowers, it would make it much easier to compare with potential living relatives.
“My view is that there’s good evidence that Archaefructus had lots of tiny simple flowers,” says Crane, who served as director of England’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1999 until 2006, and was knighted in 2004.
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Photo by Lloyd DeGrane