Garden News Blog

The Living Lineage of Flowering Plants

New Caledonia Fieldwork
Leaves and female flowers of Amborella trichopoda. Photo by Susan Pell.
New Caledonia Fieldwork
Female (right 2) and male (left 1) flowers of Amborella trichopoda. Photo by Susan Pell.
New Caledonia Fieldwork
Fruit of Amborella trichopoda. Photo by Susan Pell.

Amborella trichopoda (Amborellaceae) is the earliest known living lineage of flowering plants. Any student who has taken a class with me over the last 10 years has learned about this amazing plant. In its endemic country of New Caledonia, on Mt. Aoupinie, I finally got to see this amazing and very strange flowering tree.

The two earliest known lineages of flowering plants—that is, the earliest known branches in their evolutionary tree—are Amborella trichopoda and the order containing water lilies (Nymphaeales). What makes this finding so odd is that these two lineages are extremely different in their external and internal structure. Amborella is a small woody tree with very structurally reduced flowers and separate male and female individuals (i.e. it’s dioecious); whereas, water lilies are aquatic herbaceous plants with very complex flower structure and individuals have flowers containing both female and male reproductive parts (i.e., they are hermaphrodite).

In addition, unlike the vast majority of flowering plants, including water lilies, Amborella has no vessel elements through which to transport water. Seeing this plant sterile would have been an amazing experience, but we got to see it in flower (both female and male trees) and fruit (only female trees make fruit because fruits develop from the ovary, part of the female reproductive organ)!!

Susan Pell is the director of science at BBG, where she studies the evolutionary relationships of the cashew family. She holds a PhD in plant biology and teaches continuing education and training courses in genetics, angiosperm morphology, and systematics.


March 30, 2011

Neato! What are the anthery-looking structures on the female flowers?

April 1, 2011

No vessel elements to transport water!  This must work because New Caledonia is very wet and humid? Does it have any other mechanism to keep hydrated?

April 3, 2011
Susan Pell

Molly, those are rudimentary, sterile stamens (which are called staminodes). Note that they are smaller than the fertile stamens in the male flower and in the one on the upper left, you can see that the anthers are open but contain no pollen. You can also see a tiny cluster of pistillodes in the middle of the male flower!

April 3, 2011
Susan Pell

Mary, I should have said this in the originally entry: Amborella has tracheids instead of vessels.

April 8, 2011
Joshua Der

Fantastic! Would you mind if I used some of these pictures (esp. the fruit) in a scientific poster on Amborella? I am part of a group sequencing it’s genome.

Your adventures in New Caledonia have been fun to follow.

Best wishes.

March 23, 2012
Bryan Laughland, New Zealand

Great photos, especially of the ripe seeds! I have been to New Caledonia a number of times, but the last time I went was before I knew of the botanical significance of Amborella trichopoda. Do you know if it occurs anywhere other than on Mt. Aoupinié? I think I read that it may also be found around Col d’Amieu, and maybe also Col des Roussettes. I have been to some of the inland areas near Mt. Aoupinié, such as Nétéa and Gohapin, but not to the mountain itself. I presume it is now a protected reserve. I guess the Parc Forestier in Nouméa has specimens of A. trichopoda in cultivation. I hope I can return one day.

December 14, 2014

Thank you. Is there an Amborella couple at BBG?

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