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The earliest flower ancestor had both male and female parts

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This flower was around 140 million years ago

A 3D model of the ancestral flower reconstructed by the new study.
Image: Hervé Sauquet & Jürg Schönenberger

We now know what the ancestor of today’s flowers looked like, thanks to scientists who used computer models to re-create the plant that lived 140 million years ago.

Before now, we didn’t understand much about the origin of most of today’s flowering plants, called angiosperms. (Angiosperms account for about 90 percent of all plants.) This is partly because flowers don’t preserve well, so fossils are rare. For a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, researchers used a database of flower traits and computer models of how flowers evolve to figure out what this ancestor might have looked like.

It rather resembles a white lily, with three layers of petals, called “whorls.” The models suggest that this first flower was bisexual, meaning it had both male and female flower parts in the middle. The findings are a jumping-off point for more research into flower evolution. It can help us fill in the gaps and figure out how the descendants of this creature adapted to different environments and became magnolias, daisies, and all the other flowers.

A simplified evolutionary tree connecting all living species of flowering plants to the ancestral flower (center) that lived 140 million years ago.
Image: Hervé Sauquet & Jürg Schönenberger

The models used in the study are speculative, so we don’t know all the details about this flower ancestor. But there’s something comforting about knowing that a flower from 140 million years ago doesn’t look that different from something you could find at a florist’s shop today.