First Flower

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 of Gardens).

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 continues today.

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 Hinkley.)

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.

Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Kaipu and Hinkley

As botanist Yin Kaipu steadies the ladder, plant explorer Dan Hinkley climbs in search of a rare lily found only in one small region of China—the "mother of gardens" where the world's first flower might have evolved.

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© | Created March 2007