TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: April 17, 2007
In a story blooming with beauty and scientific mystery, this program explores
the incredible truth that lies behind the ravishing flowers we so love to
behold: that humans could not have existed or evolved without them. "First Flower"
probes the controversial discovery of Archaefructus, a Chinese fossil
scientists believe is the earliest evidence of a flower yet found on Earth.
Following the trail of clues to the fossil's origins, a vivid journey takes NOVA's
cameras deep into the lush wilds of China, giving audiences a view into a spectacular
living safety deposit box, where some of the world's most beloved flowers
originated (see Mother
Flowers have long been at the center of human life. They grace our gardens,
brighten our homes, express our gratitude, and even reveal the secrets of our
hearts. But they are also essential to human survival. Flowering
plants—which include not just our favorite roses, daffodils, and orchids
but also wheat, rice, and corn—provide food and medicine and drive
national economies. Yet for all our love and need of flowers, until recently,
the basic questions about how flowers evolved into the most important and
prolific of plants have confounded scientists. In the 19th century, Charles
Darwin himself called the dazzling variety of flowers "an abominable mystery,"
and the puzzle of how flowers came to make up 95 percent of all plants on Earth
In "First Flower", an intrepid group of botanists and paleobotanists reveal how
that "abominable mystery" is starting to move towards a solution. Flowers have
always ignited passion, and NOVA captures in glorious images how they are
continuing to inspire new scientific discoveries today. It all begins in remote
northern China, where amidst the country's rich, volcanic conditions for
fossil-finding, Professor Sun Ge and his team first unearth the
Archaefructus fossil from an ancient lake in a region where dinosaurs once roamed.
Sun Ge brings his amazing find to paleobotanist David Dilcher at the University
of Florida, who has been hunting for a fossil like this his entire life.
For Dilcher, the first step is to determine if Archaefructus is actually
a flower. But what makes a flower a flower? As Dilcher explains, the power
behind flowers is that sex sells. With their tender petals, brilliant colors,
alluring fragrances, and tasty nectars, flowers were essentially Earth's first
advertisers, using their come-hither looks as "billboards" to entice insects to
visit them and propagate their pollen. Archaefructus might not look or
smell like flowers as we know them today, but by analyzing the leaves, vein
patterns, pollen, and protective seed covering, Dilcher confirms that this
prehistoric plant is a prototype of the magnificent flowers all around us (see
Flowers Modern & Ancient).
As Dilcher continues the challenging task of examining clues to the fossil's
origins and age, Archaefructus gains fame, gracing the cover of
Science and The New York Times. The fossil also starts to
garner controversy. Among the most vocal critics of the find is Stockholm-based
paleobotanist Else Marie Friis. Friis has made another remarkable discovery
captured in the film: tiny, 120 million-year-old flower buds that long ago
turned to charcoal. Friis doesn't question that Archaefructus is an
ancient flowering plant, but believes earlier examples are yet to be found.
The exploration continues in China's Hengduan Mountains, where NOVA unveils
tantalizing footage of the most biodiverse temperate forest on Earth,
containing tens of thousands of plant species, including many so gorgeous and exotic
they make flower-lovers swoon. This environmentally endangered "safe deposit
box" for flowers has kept alive beloved varieties that would have otherwise
been wiped out forever when glaciers covered most of North America and Europe.
Here, Chinese botanist Yin Kaipu and American plant explorer Dan Hinkley (known
as the "Indiana Jones" of the plant world) are retracing the steps of British
explorer Ernest H. Wilson, who in the early 1900s braved arduous journeys and serious injury to bring back
flowers no one had ever seen before, including the regal lily, now world-famous
for its glistening white petals and heady perfume. Yin and Hinkley are
continuing the vital work Wilson started, classifying and sorting varieties to
better understand and preserve them. (See our interview and outtakes with Dan
That task is taking another leap forward at Kew Gardens, where the film gives
audiences a peek at flowers first collected by Darwin himself on his Beagle
voyage. Here, the plant equivalent of the Human Genome Project is under
way, forging a new family tree of flowers—with many surprises, such as
the news that strawberries and marijuana are closely related. Genetic studies
have also uncovered the oldest known living flower, amborella, which
grows only on the Pacific island of New Caledonia.
For all of these devoted botanists, the story told in "First Flower" is just the
beginning. As the study of ancient fossils, rare living plants, and previously
unexplored genetic structures continues, there are certain to be new
revelations behind the secrets of flowers' overwhelming success.