Botanists say the largest amber-preserved flower is a new species

The flower, first discovered over 150 years ago, has yielded new clues from its pollen.

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New images of the largest-known fossilised flower to be preserved in amber — which at 28 millimetres across is nearly three times the size of other preserved flowers — are published in the journal Scientific Reports. The preserved flower, encased in amber from the Baltic forests of northern Europe, dates from almost 40 million years ago and is thought to be from an ancient flowering evergreen plant originally called Stewartia kowalewskii.

Eva-Maria Sadowski and Christa-Charlotte Hofmann reanalysed the exceptionally large fossilised flower, which was originally described and named in 1872. The flower is dated to the Late Eocene, from between 38 million to 33.9 million years ago. The authors extracted pollen from the sample and their analysis suggests that the flower is closely related to the Asian species of Symplocos. The authors propose a new name for the flower of Symplocos kowalewskii.

A large lump with a possible stalk or tail in dark shades of orange is surrounded by almost triangular fragments, almost as if it has been caught in the process of shattering.
Symplocos kowalewskii comb. nov. et emend. (Symplocaceae; X4088) from late Eocene Baltic amber. Anther releasing pollen. Source: Sadowski and Hofmann 2023.

The authors propose that the rare size of Symplocos kowalewskii is likely from a large resin outpouring which would have encased the flower. The properties of the resin would have helped to prevent organisms growing on the flower and causing damage, they add.

The identification leads the scientists to more information on the kind of landscape the plant inhabited. In their article write:

Symplocaceae from the early Eocene flourished in paratropical forests with deciduous and evergreen taxa and multilayered canopies (e.g. early Ypresian, Fisher/Sullivan site, Virginia, United States). In younger fossil floras, Symplocaceae also dominated forested areas (e.g. in Miocene of Vogelberg/Salzhausen, Germany) or grew in the understory of lowland hinterland forests, mixed with conifers and angiosperms (middle Miocene, Lavantal Basin, Austria; late early Miocene, Wiesa, Germany). In the early Oligocene Haselbach horizon (Leipzig Embayment, Germany), Symplocos species were one of the main constituents of mixed mesophytic forests, but also occurred in Quasisequoia swamp forests. Most species of extant Symplocaceae are evergreen shrubs and trees that grow from 500 up to 4000 m elevation of tropical zones, being most abundant in mountain forests of 2500–3500 m elevation. The fossil and extant occurrences of Symplocaceae indicate that the family thrives in humid mixed-mesophytic forests in warm-temperate to subtropical climates, whereas arid regions are avoided.

Sadowski and Hofmann 2023

They conclude that the Baltic amber source area had “affinities to evergreen broadleaved and mixed mesophytic forests of present-day East and Southeast Asia.”

📰 Press release: Fossils: Largest flower preserved in amber from over 33 million years ago at Eurekalert.
🔬Research: The largest amber-preserved flower revisited available at Scientific Reports.

Dale Maylea

Dale Maylea was a system for adding value to press releases. Then he was a manual algorithm for blogging any papers that Alun Salt thinks are interesting. Now he's an AI-assisted pen name. The idea being telling people about an interesting paper NOW beats telling people about an interesting paper at some time in the future, when there's time to sit down and take things slowly. We use the pen name to keep track of what is being written and how. You can read more about our relationship with AI.

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