Flowers have long held the fascination of humans, but in evolutionary terms they are a relatively recent arrival, first bursting into bloom between 140 and 250 million years ago.
European botanists have now determined what the single ancestor of all modern flowers looked like using the largest dataset of features from living flowers ever assembled.
Hervé Sauquet from France’s Université Paris-Sud was one of the authors of an academic paper behind the discovery.
“It was a highly imperfect flower; I find it rather attractive,” Dr Sauquet said.
The news has excited botanists around the world, and particularly here in Australia, where Dr Sauquet will arrive next month to start working at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens.
Marco Duretto, manager of plant diversity at the gardens near the city’s CBD, said the final discovery is an exciting prospect.
“This first flower is the origin of all those [350,000 species of] flowers we know now,” Dr Duretto said.
“This is actually very, very exciting because a lot of people have done a lot of work, mainly in Europe but also North America, trying to work out what the first flower possibly looked like.”
Humans and flowers: it’s love and evolution
The allure of flowers is not surprising, given they are responsible for propagating much of the organic life on the planet.
Even flowers that smell like death are popular, like the rare and notorious “corpse flower” that blooms just once every few years, bringing with it the stench of rotting flesh.
Visitors to Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens were treated to the scent earlier this year, and crowds have been gathering at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens in the hope of witnessing another.
“It is a bit like waiting for a baby. You don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen,” senior horticulturist Sadie Barber said.
Some questions remain about the first flower – how it was coloured, how it was pollinated, and whether it was unisexual or bisexual.
Dr Duretto said the origin of flowers was one of the great mysteries of science, and we probably know more about the origin of the moon than we do the origin of flowers.
“Flowers actually were critical in the evolution of what we’ve got now in our world, including us,” Dr Duretto said.