These Are the Oldest Known Flowers in the World

Found in the fossil record, these plants are more than 100 million years old

Montsechia’s origins in freshwater lakes challenge the idea that flowers evolved on land before moving into water. Bernard Gomez / Université Lyon, France
Excavated in Virginia by a former Smithsonian curator, Potomacapnos apeleutheron dates to between 115 million and 125 million years ago, making it one of the oldest known flowers in North America. Nathan Jud
Currently competing with Montsechia for the title of oldest known flowering plant is Archaefructus, from China, which has been dated to around the same time in the early Cretaceous. Florida Museum of Natural History / Natural Museum of Natural History, SI

The evolution of flowers, Charles Darwin famously said, was an “abominable mystery,” chiefly because they seemed to suddenly burst into the fossil record 100 million years ago. Naturalists have struggled to fill in the blanks that puzzled Darwin, and now, after a dogged search by Bernard Gomez, a paleobotanist from France, there’s a new candidate for the oldest known flower. Gomez studied more than 1,000 fossils of the extinct aquatic plant Montsechia, recovered in abundance from sites in Spain and preserved in collections across Europe. In the surprisingly messy world of plant taxonomy, Montsechia has been classified as a conifer, among other classifications, but Gomez concluded that it possessed enclosed seeds, the hallmark of an angiosperm, or flowering plant. “I went to the British Museum, I went to Paris, I went to Berlin and Barcelona,” he says. A poor excuse for a flower by today’s standards, Montsechia, which dates to about 130 million years ago, didn’t even have petals. Its pollen floated in water instead of through air. But along with ancient specimens from China, Portugal and the Americas, it embodies the humble origins of the glorious forms we see all over the world today.

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This story is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine.