When I found out I would be seeing a living Amborella, a lump formed in my throat. There I was standing in one of the tropical houses at the Atlanta Botanical Garden trying to keep my cool. No amount of patience was ample enough to quell my excitement. How was I going to react? How big were these plants? Would I see flowers? Could I touch them? What were they growing in? My curiosity was through the roof.
Naturally this sort of excitement is reserved for those of us familiar with Amborella trichopoda. This strange shrub is not something that would readily stand out against a backdrop of tropical flora. However, if life history and ecology were to be translated into outward appearances, Amborella would likely be one of the most gaudy plants on this planet. What I was about the lay eyes on is the only member of the sole genus belonging to the family Amborellaceae, which is the sole member of the order Amborellales.
Even more exciting is its position on the angiosperm family tree. As flowering plants go, Amborella is thought to be the oldest alive today. Okay, so maybe this shrub isn't the oldest flowering plant in the world. It is likely that at one time, many millions of years ago, there were more representatives of Amborellaceae growing on this planet. Until we turn up more fossil evidence it is nearly impossible to say. Still, Amborella's place in the story of flowering plant evolution is consistently located at the base.
That is not to say that this shrub is by any means primitive. I think the first thing that shocked me about these plants is just how "normal" they appear. Sans flowers, I didn't see much out of the ordinary about them. They certainly look like they belong on our timeline. Without proper training in plant anatomy and physiology, there is little one could deduce about their evolutionary position. Regardless of my ignorance on plant morphology, there is plenty to look at on Amborella.
For starters, Amborella has tracheids but no vessel elements, making its vascular system more like that of a gymnosperm than an angiosperm. Its small flowers are borne in the axils of the evergreen leaves. It has no petals, only bracts arranged into a spiral of tepals. The female flowers consist of 4 to 8 free carpels and do not produce a style. Male flowers look like nothing more than a spiral cluster of stamens borne on short filaments.
If plant anatomy isn't enough to convince you, then the genetic analyses tell a much more compelling story. DNA sequencing consistently places Amborella at the base of the flowering plant family tree. Again, this is not to say that this shrub is by any means "primitive" but rather its lineage diverged long before what we would readily recognize as a flowering plant evolved. As such, Amborella offers us a window into the early days of flowering plants. By comparing traits present in more derived angiosperms to those of Amborella, researchers are able to better understand how the most dominant group of plants found their place in this world.
Another interesting thing happened when researchers looked at the DNA of Amborella. What they found was more than just Amborella genes. Inside the mitochondrial DNA are an unprecedented amount of foreign DNA from algae, lichens and mosses. In fact, an entire chunk of DNA corresponded to an entire mitochondrial genome of a moss! Researchers now believe that this is a case of extreme horizontal gene transfer between Amborella and its neighbors both growing on and around it. Both in the wild and in cultivation, Amborella is covered in a sort of "biofilm." Whether or not such gene transfer has assisted in the conservatism of this lineage over time remains to be seen.
At this point you may be asking how this lineage has persisted for over 130 million years. For the most part, it is probably due to chance. However, there is one aspect of its ecology that really stands out in this debate and that is its geographic distribution. Amborella is endemic to Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia. This is a very special place for biodiversity.
New Caledonia is a small fragment of the once great super-continent Gondwana. New Caledonia, which was part of Australia at that time, broke away from Gondwana when the super-continent began to break up some 200-180 million years ago. New Caledonia then broke away from Australia some 66 million years ago and has not been connected to another land mass since. A warm, stable climate has allowed some of the most unique flora and fauna to persist for all that time. Amborella is but one of the myriad endemic plants that call New Caledonia home. For instance, 43 species of tropical conifers that grow on these small islands are found nowhere else in the world. The whole region is a refugia of a long lost world.
Being a biodiversity hot spot has not spared New Caledonia from the threats of modern man. Mining, agriculture, urbanization, and climate change are all threatening to undo much of what makes this place so unique. The loss of a species like Amborella would be a serious blow to biodiversity, conservation, and the world as whole. We cannot allow this species to exist only in cultivation. New Caledonia is one place we must desperately try to conserve. Meeting this species has left a mark on me. Being able to observe living Amborella up close and personal is something I will never forget as my chances of seeing this species in the wild are quite slim. I am so happy to know that places like the Atlanta Botanical Garden are committed to understanding and conserving this species both in the wild and in cultivation. For now Amborella is here to stay. Long may it be that way.