How was it possible that flowering plants, whose first appearance in evolutionary history can now be dated back to 140 – 250 million years on the basis of fossil finds, could arise at all and develop at high evolutionary speed, since their first appearance, into a diversity of more than 100,000 species?
At first everything was green
Until then for three and a half billion years there had only been algae living under water but no plants taking root in the earth. The algae evolved into mosses and then, about 400 million years later, into ferns, the very first stem plants in the history of this planet.
The fern has survived all the ages of the history of the Earth and will also probably survive everything that awaits this planet in the coming decades and centuries – in filigree beauty and organic robustness. An undeniable example of the resilience of plants.
Many years ago when I once had the opportunity to go down into the depths of a coalmine with an experienced companion, when I was crawling through a narrow seam, out of the corner of my eye, in the light of my lamp I saw the imprint of a fern in a lump of coal. Never before and never since in my life have I felt myself so close to the traces of evolutionary history as I did at that moment. I was overcome with emotion and paused. Then I took hold of this lump of coal that who knows how many millions of years ago had absorbed this fern leaf, and continued to crawl on, supporting myself with just the one hand. In the other hand I grasped the fossilised fern and to this day I cherish it with a mixture of affection and respect.
Then colour appeared
Like other predecessors of today‘s flowering plants, ferns were and are so-called bisexual gymnosperms. Its bisexual DNA, however, conceals the predisposition to produce an angiosperm, i.e. a flower. Flowering plants have thus evolved from the genetic heritage of gymnosperms. However, with their flowers, which are true “architectural” masterpieces of nature in terms of their inner structures, they have a reproductive organ that cannot fertilise itself but is reliant on cooperation with other forms of life – bees, butterflies and other insects.
For the purpose of reproduction flowering plants developed characteristics that exerted a strong attraction on all kinds of animal pollinators such as bright colours and effusive scents. And due to cross-pollination species mixing or cross pollination spread as various insects took the seeds from one flower to other different kinds and deposited them. Today flowering plants account for 90% of all plant diversity.
Darwin would be thrilled
A mere 150 years after Darwin, in the 21st century palaeobotantists using state-of-the-art high tech have solved the problem that was still incomprehensible to Darwin in his time. He would certainly have been thrilled.
He would probably be much less enthusiastic if he knew about the way humans have handled this diversity in the last decades of the 20th century up to the present day. The natural proliferation of flowering plants that once existed in meadows and along roadsides has increasingly been pushed back by agribusiness oriented to the cultivation of crops, as well as by the sealing of the earth’s surface through the expansion of asphalted surfaces and the creation of gardens in which the colourful meadow flowers are eliminated as weeds and replaced by manicured lawns or trimmed conifers set in black gravel.
Every human intervention in the cybernetic system of nature has consequences. If the flowers disappear, the consequence is that their pollinators also disappear. We have known this for a long time. And have started to breed bees, to breed forests and to industrialize farming. But cybernetic systems do not function in linear monocausal chains of action. They are complex. Let’s see how long it takes before our species has really understood this. At least the natural scientists have grasped the point.