The First Flower
Flowering plants delight our senses; we love them in our gardens as well as in our homes. In our gardens they attract humming birds, lady bugs and other wonderful creatures of nature. Yet it's little appreciated that flowering plants are the basis of our food. In fact, humans would not have evolved without them.
Flowers hold a special place in the natural world and in the human psyche. The flowering plants are not just fragrant, decorative objects; they are actually essential to human life. Almost all of our food, including staples like wheat, corn and rice, is derived from them. Plants are also important as medicines.
Before flowers, Earth was covered with green plants like ferns, pines, and the now-extinct seed ferns. Their reproduction was quite slow and also inefficient. Pollination was mostly carried out by the wind. Today it's shared by insects and birds.
When and how flowering plants began has long been one of botany's biggest and most beautiful mysteries.
One of the best places on Earth to see the results of the evolution of flowering plants is the Hengduan Mountains, in southwestern China. This area spans the regions of Sichuan, Hunan and Tibet. This is the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. From the prospective of a plant lover it feels oddly familiar, because this is where many of the flowers in your garden came from.
The things that make these Hengduan Mountains such a rich breeding ground for plant life is the variety of climates. The unique conditions there have allowed many of the flowers to survive the last ice age. In other countries around the globe, thousands of species of plants were stripped clean by the glaciers. The Hengduan Mountains have, in effect, preserved botanical history and served as a safety deposit box of temperate diversity.
The first flowering plants didn't resemble any flowers we know today. They didn't have petals, they didn't have fragrance, and they weren't beautiful. They simply were functional. Archaefructus is the oldest known complete flowering plant fossil. It likely came about in the Cretaceous period. It was previously thought to have existed in the Jurassic period, the age of dinosaurs, but a recent discovery may have disproved that.
Meanwhile, who knows what clues to the evolution of flowers may be growing in this vast mountainous safety deposit box of plant diversity in Western China and possibly elsewhere around the world? How long will those clues last, if not given the proper attention? The United Nations has declared the Hengduan Mountains to be under ecological threat from growing urbanization. Species have been disappearing fast. If we don't protect them, many will be lost. This would be a tragedy indeed. Several international organizations have called for an increased effort to protect this region before its diversity is lost forever to the modern day glacier of “environmental destruction”.
There are other fossils in places out there that will shed light on the mystery of the first flower. Botanists are determined to find them. The full mystery of how flowering plants began and as of today has not been solved.
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