It’s hard to imagine a world without flowering plants, but today’s colorful varieties only began to emerge during the last age of the dinosaurs, the Cretaceous Period.
The earliest flowering plant yet identified is Archaefructus sinensis or “ancient fruit,” which was small, low growing, and straggly, and not like the colorful plants of today. It dates back around 125 million years.
When did petals appear?
Early flowers lacked petals and when they did first appear, they were tiny. Petals created more variety, as plants began to compete for attention from insect pollinators.
What is pollination?
Most flowering plants don’t produce seeds unless a dustlike substance—pollen—is transferred from one flower to another. Pollen can be carried by wind or by animals such as bees, which are rewarded with nectar.
It’s in the fruit
After being pollinated, a flower produces seeds. To help seeds disperse to new habitats, many plants wrap them in a fruit. Fruits are often sweet and fleshy to attract animals, which eat the fruit and discard the seeds later in droppings.
Grasses are flowering plants with tiny flowers that are pollinated by wind. Grasses appeared in the Cretaceous, but grasslands as we know them didn’t really become established until around 10 million years ago.
Life in the cold
Flowering plants can survive in hot deserts or on freezing mountaintops. In the land around the North Pole, where the deep soil is frozen solid, trees can’t survive but small flowering plants cover the ground, forming a landscape called tundra.
They are everywhere
Today, practically all we eat that isn’t meat comes from a flowering plant, while farmed animals, such as cattle, depend on such plants for nourishment. Even our clothes are made from flowering plants, which are used for making linen and cotton.
An old friend
Magnolias color our world today, but they were also familiar to the dinosaurs. They began to appear in the middle of the Cretaceous Period, spreading because they grew quickly, which was a defense against being eaten by dinosaurs.
A COLORFUL MEADOW
Many flowering plants burst into bloom in the spring, when insect pollinators become active as the weather warms up. All the plants you can see in this picture are members of the flowering plant family.