Monday, March 16, 2015

Mosses of Central Florida 11. Haplocladium microphyllum

Haplocladium microphyllum is frequently found growing in wet, sandy soil
in lawns.

Haplocladium microphyllum (Hedw.) Broth. (Thuidiaceae)  is a creeping, mat-forming moss that is widespread globally, across much of Eurasia, South America, and in North America from Florida to Texas and up to southern Canada.

This species superficially resembles Isopterygium tenereum.  They are both prostrate, mat-forming mosses growing at the bases of trees, but Haplocladium is more likely to be found on soil, frequently in lawns, and often found on or near concrete or other alkaline materials.  Their capsules are essentially indistinguishable from those of Isopterygium, without examination of minute technical details.
Haplocladium colonies can sometimes be seen creeping
up on bricks or concrete surfaces.

The capsules of Haplocladium are curved to the
side as in Isopterygium.
The leaves of Haplocladium are short but slender-tipped, and
have a prominent midrib.
It is in their leaves that Haplocladium can be most easily distinguished from similar species.  The leaves of Haplocladium are shorter, but with more prolonged tips, and more pressed against the stem than those of Isopterygium, especially when dry.  The leaves also have a strong midrib, lacking in Isopterygium, and the cells are roundish to square, instead of long and worm-like.  The cells are also papillate, i.e. with short, hard, pimple-like projections.
The leaf cells are squarish and have a single hard
papillum (seen as a bright spot on the out-of-focus
cells to the sides). Part of the midrib is on the left.

Species in the genus Entodon have a similar creeping habit, but their capsules are upright and cylindric.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Plant Life: a Brief History

If you've enjoyed these botany professor essays, you'll probably also find "Plant Life: a Brief History" of interest.  It was written in the same spirit, but provides a more complete narrative of the evolution of photosynthetic organisms from their ancient beginning as cyanobacteria, to their dizzying diversity as flowering plants.

I wrote this book to provide a different way of looking at the the fundamental features of plants, as well as to trace their evolutionary history.  In this chronological approach, the critical features and processes of plants are presented as they arose in adaptation to new habitats or lifestyle opportunities.  Adaptation is the key process of evolution and also provides  explanations for why plants are the way they are and why they do what they do.

Plant Life: a Brief History showcases some of the best
botanical line art from  classical botany texts.  This
illustration of different forms of mosses is from the classic
"Natural History of Plants," by Kerner & Oliver, 1895.
A. Polytrichum commune; B. Bryum caespiticium;
C. Hylocomium splendens; D. Sphagnum palustre.
Photosynthesis was an adaptation, a series of adaptations in fact, for taking advantage of the huge untapped source of energy coming from the sun.  The cyanobacteria that perfected it proliferated into vast numbers and dominated the Earth's ecosystem for two billion years.  And so the story began.

Everything else, from why green algae have flagella and red algae don't, to why monocot leaves have parallel veins, can be explained as adaptations to particular environmental challenges or opportunities.  While we don't know for sure the details or circumstances of some of these adaptations, we can be sure that nothing about plants came about accidentally or without value to their survival. For the adaptive events of plant evolution that are still shrouded in mystery, I provide some plausible scenarios, including some that are still controversial.

The detailed structures of Psilotum and Tmesipteris
are crystal clear in this illustration from the "The Plant
Kingdom," by William F. Brown, 1935.  Reprinted
with permission from the Brown family.
This book also highlights another aspect of history: the marvelously detailed line drawings of the great botanical texts written in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  There is a vast treasure of such illustrations out there, and I have chosen a number of them to illustrate the various plants we encounter in the book.

The book is designed as a supplement for students, a refresher for teachers, a primer for non-botanists whose research or teaching touches upon plants, and as an introduction to plants and their evolution for the general reader.  Because of this broad intended audience, technical jargon has been kept to a minimum.

A preview is posted on the Google Books website, which includes the table of contents, the introduction, and the first chapter. It is available from Oxford University Press and other major booksellers in hardcover in the U.S. and sometime in April in the U.K. and elsewhere.  It is also available as an eBook from many online booksellers.

If you can't purchase it at this time, please ask your local or school library to obtain it.

In the meantime, we will continue with more adventures on this blog site.  Stay tuned!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mosses of Central Florida 10. Cryphaea glomerata

Cryphea glomerata grows on branches of hardwood trees. Photographed in
Hardee County by Alan Franck, USF Herbarium, 
[For other mosses in this series, see the Table of Contents]

Cryphaea glomerata Schimp. ex Sull. (Cryphaeaceae) is unusual in several respects.  It grows relatively high on the branches of hardwood trees in moist forests, and the sporangia are on very short stalks.  It is found throughout the eastern US, from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma.

Cells of the leaf are small and roundish, with thick walls.
The stems are horizontal with leaves more-or-less flattened in a plane.  Leaf cells are flattened-roundish, with thick walls, and a midrib extends most of the way through the leaf.

Sporophytes are produced sporadically along the stems and are sessile (lacking a long stalk), remaining embedded within a cluster of sharp-tipped bracts. The unusual positioning indicates that long stalks are of no advantage to mosses that spread their branches from high vantage points, allowing them to provide greater protection for the sporangia.

A related species, Cryphea nervosa, is also found in Florida, and differs only in its more prolonged, sharp-tipped leaves, and the capsule teeth being more deeply embedded.

The family Cryphaeaceae is closely related to the Leucodontaceae, and not well-distinguished, making the genus Forsstroemia the most closely related genus locally.
Sporophytes (arrows) are produced sporadically along the leafy stems
and remain embedded within a nest of protective bracts.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Mosses of Central Florida 9. Sematophyllum adnatum

Sematophyllum adnatum forms tangled mats of elongate leafy stems.  It is
distinguished from mosses of similar habit by the leaves that curve strongly
to one side.
[For other mosses in this series, see the Table of Contents]

Sematophyllum adnatum (Michx.) E. G. Britt. is one of the most common mosses in Florida, and also occurs westward into Texas, northward to New York and Ohio, and in tropical America.

The leaves of Sematophyllum adnatum consist of uniformly
elongate cells with thick walls, except at the basal corners
(here folded in) where they are more squarrish and inflated.
It resembles other common mosses, such as  Isopterygium tenerum, in that it forms thick mats of straggling leafy stems primarily on the bark at the bases of tree trunks and fallen logs.  It differs from other straggling mosses most conspicuously in the way the leaves curl to one side, particularly as they dry out, and in the capsules, which are slightly asymmetric, but erect, not strongly curved the way they are in Isopterygium.  

The leaves are similar to those of Isopterygium and other members of the Hypnaceae, with slender, worm-like cells with thick walls, and lacking in a costa, or midrib.  The leaf tips are generally not toothed like those in Isopterygium, and cells at the basal corners are more inflated. The caosules are also similar to those in the Hypnaceae, with two rows of teeth around the mouth.  Sematophyllum is presently separated in the Sematophyllaceae, which is scarcely distinguishable from the Hypnaceae. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

How plants do everything without moving a muscle

So more about the difference between plants and animals. In my last post ("Why we must teach botany"), I indicated that photosynthesis dictates immobility, and that the inability to move has ramifications for all other aspects of plant life.  One of the challenges of teaching botany is to convince students that organisms that don’t look or behave like their pet hamster are in fact far more interesting!  And as it turns out, our favorite things about plants, from flowers to flavorings, only exist because plants can't move.

Plants must spread their tissues thinly in light-
gathering antennas known as leaves, with an
equivalent underground system of water and mineral-
gathering roots.  This architecture makes
movement impossible.  Pictured is a species of
Tetrapanax from China.
The word “animal” means something that moves, as in the word “animate.”  Why don't plants also move?  Wouldn't it be useful for them to pick up and move to  a better lit or more fertile location, or to swat away annoying herbivorous insects?  And how do plants have sex if they can't move?  It all begins with how animals and plants feed themselves.

Animal food comes in the form of concentrated, nutrient-dense packages: other organisms. Animals move in order to locate, go after, capture, and consume these discrete food items.  Secondarily, they move to reproduce, escape danger, or defend themselves.  These activities require muscles, nerves, senses, a mouth and an internal digestive system.  When animals became multicellular, their cells wrapped compactly around the central digestive cavity, and one end became specialized for feeding and coordinating movement. An animal body is therefore discrete, streamlined, and highly organized, with a distinct head for sensing and biting, fixed locomotory organs along the sides, and, in most, a rear end for excreting wastes.  
The resources needed by plants, on the other hand, are diffuse: carbon dioxide, light, water, and dissolved minerals.  In order to efficiently gather these far-flung molecules and photons, plants must spread their tissues broadly and thinly, and behave more like antenna systems than hunters; the more they spread, the more resources they can gather. So inherent to the plant lifestyle is indeterminate growth - the ability to grow, branch, and expand their antenna systems indefinitely.

Some single-celled algae move about in response to light
intensity, but this is impractical for multicellular plants, as
simple flagella would have to be replaced by muscles, a
 coordinating nervous system, and a streamlined body ill-
suited to photosynthesis.
Single-celled, flagellate algae like dinoflagellates, euglenoids, and some green algae do move in response to light and other stimuli, but as plant life became multicellular, the costs of motility apparently outweighed the benefits.  How would you push a satellite dish through the water, or march a tree across a savanna?  The shape requirements for motility and for photosynthesis are architectural opposites, but for every reason animals have found movement necessary, plants have found alternate strategies. 

The famous photosynthetic sea slug, Elysia clarki, would seem
to be an exceptional animate "plant."  Sea slugs must still
obtain their chloroplasts by ingesting algae, and so still need
the full motility apparatus of animals. If a sea slug were able to
pass its chloroplasts onto its offspring and never have to eat
again, its descendants would most likely gradually lose their
ability to move as they expanded their photosynthetic surface
further, and perhaps even take up a plant-like habit of branching
and indeterminate growth.
If a plant becomes shaded, for example, it can usually branch out and extend into a light patch.  A vine thus finds its niche in a dense forest.  Roots likewise can extend toward moister or more fertile patches of soil.   So indeterminate growth can relocate antenna systems as well as expand them, making motility not only difficult, but also unnecessary.   

The plant body is what it needs to be for efficient photosynthesis, but without moving parts, how do plants, particularly terrestrial plants, do anything else?  How do they circulate water and food, for example?

Animals circulate food, water, and wastes through a muscle-driven circulatory system. Lacking that, plants have developed a simple passive system that operates pretty much like a paper towel.  The walls of plant cells are made of cellulose, which by no coincidence is the material paper towels are made of.  Water moves upward into a paper towel, even defying gravity, because of the magnetic attractions among water molecules and cellulose.  The plant is a giant, complex paper towel sopping up water from the soil. Evaporation of water at the top of the plant pulls more water up from the roots, keeping the entire system saturated and moving (see How does water get to the top of a redwood tree?). This is transpiration, which requires no energy expenditure on the part of the plant and no moving parts. 

For other activities, plants exploit something called turgor pressure, which in turn is the result of the enigmatic process of osmosis.  The short description of osmosis is that water tends to move into cells, causing them to expand.  If that works for you, you can skip to the next paragraph.  The explanation for why this happens is more complicated.  The net movement of water across a cell membrane is from areas of higher water concentration (i.e. distilled water) into areas of lower water concentration (i.e. a solution of other molecules), even though it would seem that the latter area is already “crowded.”  Water molecules move randomly in both directions, but since there are more of them outside the cell than inside, the number entering at any moment is greater than the number that are exiting.  The other molecules in the cell cannot exit as easily, so the cell just gets more crowded.  As the total number of molecules bumping around inside the cell increases,  the pressure increases.  Incidentally, the opposite happens when you put a cell into salt water – water leaves the cell and it shrivels.
The leaves of the venus fly trap snap shut around prey by
manipulating osmotic water pressure. Water pressure
in cells (turgor pressure) drives their expansion
during plant growth, and also maintains the crispness
and upright posture of soft plant parts.  It also
moves dissolved food around the plant through the phloem.
Water tension resulting from transpiration pulls water
upward, sometimes 100 meters or more.  All this happens
without muscles or nervous system. 

 A naked animal cell in fresh water will expand until it bursts.  Plant cells, however, are surrounded by rigid cellulose walls that do not allow the cells to expand.  So the pressure builds up to the point at which it starts forcing water molecules out of the cell at the same rate they enter through osmosis.  The pressure then stabilizes and we know it as turgor pressure.

So healthy plant cells are pressurized, and this creates a force that plants exploit in a variety of ways, replacing the force of muscular activity in animals. Turgor pressure is what keeps soft plants upright, and lettuce crispy.  It causes young cells with soft walls to expand during growth of shoots and roots.  It is also the basis for venus flytrap leaves snapping together, through a sudden decrease in turgor pressure.  In the phloem tissue, sugar is actively pumped into specialized cells, resulting in even more osmotic pressure.  These cells are connected in long tubes and the pressurized fluid flows to areas of lower pressure, where sugar is being actively removed.  Thus sugar may flow from leaves to roots, or from roots to new shoots, flowers, or fruits.

How do plants reproduce while stuck in one spot?  The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind (with apologies to Bob Dylan!). Sperm cells can move only short distances and must remain wet.  Sexual reproduction, on land at least, can therefore occur only between individuals that are literally touching one another. To be worth the trouble, however, sperm cells must unite with eggs from a genetically different individual.  While animals run around in frantic hormone-driven pursuit of a mate, plants have a sublimely simpler solution: they release tiny airborne spores to serve as genetic couriers. 
When we see a fern in the forest, we're looking at the
sporophyte generation, which produces spores asexually.
The gametophyte generation of ferns
is a small, independent, short-lived green
plant.  Sexual reproduction occurs
between adjacent gametophytes.  The
resulting fertilized egg will develop
 into another full-sized fern
 (the sporophyte).
Ferns, for example, produce thousands of tiny spores that swirl around in the breeze, and which with luck land next to spores produced by genetically different individuals.   Each spore grows into a tiny, specialized, short-lived plant, and it is these tiny plants, the gametophytes, that undergo sexual reproduction.  Sperm cells from one swim the short distance to the eggs produced by another.  (The full-sized plants that produce the spores are called sporophytes). The life cycle of a plant thus consists of the alternation of  full-sized individuals with tiny ones. (See “the truth about sex in plants.”)

In flowers, such as this orchid in the genus Cypripedium,
the gametophyte generation is hidden within seeds
and pollen grains. The elaborate structures of flowers
are devices for luring insects and
other animals to carry sperm-containing pollen grains
from one immobile plant to another.
The gametophytes of seed plants are even tinier than those of ferns and hard to see.  A pollen grain is a fancy spore that moves sometimes great distances and carries within it the tiny 3-celled sperm-producing gametophyte.  The egg-producing gametophyte is likewise hidden away inside an embryonic seed (ovule).  So when a pollen grain is delivered to a pine cone or a flower by wind or insect, it brings sperm cells directly to the eggs. Plants can thus reproduce with genetically different individuals that may be miles or hundreds of miles away, and they don’t have to move an inch.

Finally, without the ability to run, hide, or bite, how do plants defend themselves against the hoard of vegetation-munching insects, grazing mammals, and other herbivores? They have a variety of tricks, but primarily what they do is to make themselves toxic or at least distasteful to most animals.  Plant are master chemists, and have continually come up with new poisons to counter the ever diversifying array of vegetarians.  Those poisons, incidentally, are the sources of our medicines, drugs and spices, as well as overt poisons.  The difference between a medicine, or even a spice, and a poison is a matter of dosage.

File:Curcuma longa roots.jpg
Spices, such as the yellow curcumin from the rhizome of
turmeric plants (Curcuma longa), are chemical defenses against herbivores,
as are other substances we use as drugs, medicines, poisons, resins, etc.
Photo by Simon A. Eugster, posted and licensed on Wikimedia Commons,

Plants can also create physical barriers that deter animals from even taking a bite: layers of dense fibers or bone-like sclereids within their tissues, or spiky thorns, spines, and prickles on the surface.  Grasses and some other monocots invest relatively little in chemicals, but regrow rapidly from their leaf bases after an attack of herbivores.  

Plants thus achieve all of life's basic functions without moving a muscle, and flourish in great variety and numbers.  A lion can growl and bite and claw its way through an existence of a couple of decades, but a tree can live for 5000 years.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why we must teach botany

Those of you who follow this blog site regularly may be wondering where I've been for the past several months.  Aside from teaching this semester and having to move my office, I've been finalizing the manuscript of a new book: “Plant Life – A Brief History,” which will be published this winter by Oxford University Press.  My reason for writing this book is the same as for doing this blog site – to explore the mysteries of why plants are the way they are, and to help people around the world to better understand this fascinating and important group of organisms. 

I hope my efforts will also contribute to the Botanical Society of America’s fight against “plant blindness,” and its campaign to “reclaim the name” of botany. (go to So what’s all that about?  There has been a serious decline in the teaching of botany in university biology departments over the past 40 years.  The  reasons for that are complex, but primarily the result of the burgeoning growth of cellular, genetic, and developmental biology, as well as advances in theoretical ecology, that have come to occupy an increasing share of an undergraduate’s budget of course requirements.  This is on top of the traditional bias that plants are less interesting or less important than animals.

Like fine arts and PE in elementary schools, botany and other taxonomically defined classes are viewed as luxuries that can be cut if needed – and they have been. In some universities, even the introductory botany course has fallen by the wayside, leaving only a week of plants in an introductory biology sequence.  Even that is typically taught reluctantly by a young (or old) faculty member who is only one chapter ahead of the students in his or her own removal from plant blindness.  

The excuse is often given that “most of our undergraduates these days are pre-med.” That doesn’t excuse a department from providing a well-rounded background for those who plan to go into research or teaching.  Moreover, when courses in medical botany are offered, they are very popular, and provide to our future doctors, nurses, etc., a vital broadening of perspective on the nature of medicine.

Plant blindness then refers to a general lack of awareness of plants, particularly of their diversity and the many unique ways they contribute to the balance of the natural world, as well as to our own societal and individual well-being.  It is akin to other forms of blindness, like the much deplored inability of young people to point out Iraq, or even Texas, on a map.  Our undergraduates, graduate students, applicants for our vacant positions, and ultimately our fellow faculty members increasingly have less working knowledge of plants.

There’s no question that this is bad at all levels.  At the general level, failure to understand both the fundamental biology of plants, and the significance of plant diversity, leads to superficial and erroneous interpretation of environmental issues, abuse of our food supply chain, nutritional and medicinal resources, poorly designed and maintained landscapes, and numerous other issues vital to our survival.   K-12 teachers turned out by universities without a good background in plants will reinforce and amplify the blindness. 

At the professional level, biologists may overlook cellular, genetic, and developmental processes, or environmental adaptations, unique to plants.  Consideration of how plants do things can provide a breakthrough when animal or microbial models hit a dead end.  A great comedian draws upon his or her own accumulation of diverse observations of culture and human behavior to synthesize a unique and entertaining routine.  A master medical diagnostician draws upon a vast pool of specific information about symptom and their causes, to identify and cure an ill patient.  And so too, the most brilliant and imaginative biological researcher will draw upon his or her knowledge of diverse organisms to ask new questions, or to find different solutions to existing questions. 

We must of course teach critical thinking and the scientific method in science, but there must also be a place for teaching awareness of diversity, and providing opportunities to build a pool of knowledge about different organisms. 

In addition, the lack of awareness of plant diversity and the fact that every species interacts uniquely, whether subtly or dramatically, with its environment can lead to serious errors.  It can lead researchers to oversimplify the role of plants in ecosystems, or worse to fail to obtain accurate identifications of the plants studied (see Bortolus 2008, for some classic blunders).  Misidentification links the study plants, as well as the results of the study, to the wrong body of literature.
The “reclaim the name” movement reflects the parallel decline of respect for botany among our biological colleagues, and the impression that botany as a subject matter is old-fashioned and no longer important.  Will a name change help?  It seems that everything in our society gets renamed every few years in order to buy new respect.  Used cars are now “pre-owned” and I’m not sure what graveyards are called these days.  Some of my colleagues insist that we call our discipline “Plant Science,” but to me that has an applied, agricultural ring to it.  I haven’t seen any of my zoologist friends opt for “Animal Science,” which if I remember correctly from my years at Cornell is the study of dairy cows! 

The counterpart to zoology is “phytology,” which has never caught on as the name of our discipline.  If we ditch botany, what do we do with botanical gardens?  “Plant gardens” just sounds dumb, and people would just drive past a ”phytarium,” having no idea what the heck it was.  

I, for one, am a BOTANIST.

The term botany has indeed evolved into something that encompasses the big picture of plant life, of the unique attributes that unite plants, as well as of the multiplicity of unique ways in which plants have adapted for survival.  This is what distinguishes those of us who call ourselves botanists from cell biologists, geneticists, etc. who happen to be working with plant models at present.  Being a botanist, however, is not a research specialty, but a label that can be appended to any researcher who has had a broad training in botany, and/or a sufficient interest in the big picture to self-educate.  

That broad training – a full curriculum in plant anatomy, morphology, physiology and taxonomy, is harder to find these days, but does survive in departments affiliated with agricultural colleges and a few other refuges of enlightenment.  Let’s hope they continue the tradition!

So outside of those botanical monasteries, what do we do with our 15 minutes in the spotlight?  What are the essentials of botany that every undergraduate should have?  Earlier, I posted the “Essential features of plants.”  Those, at least, we need to impart in our week in introductory biology.  We need to avoid getting bogged down at that level in too much descriptive details, but perhaps demonstrate, with some well-chosen examples,  how different plants can provide radically different solutions to the same problems of survival.

If we are able to provide a full semester introduction to botany, we should do so aimed at a broad audience of science majors, from biology to geology and anthropology, with minimal prerequisites.  Beyond that, botanists in our faculty can craft more specialized courses based on their own background and experience. 

The introductory course, beyond the essentials, will have an emphasis on evolution,  diversity and ecology.  Discovery and explanation of adaptive differences among plants is what makes botany so exhilarating, and what can come as startling revelations to the plant blind.  Again, we must pull back a bit from the details that fill textbooks designed for botany majors. 

I leave you with a simple comparison of plants and animals, which borrows from the biblical model of “begats.”  A framework like this can serve as the starting point for a lecture, a class, or an entire botanical curriculum.

For plants:

  1.       In the beginning was photosynthesis.
  2.       Photosynthesis begat indeterminate growth.
  3.       Indeterminate growth begat immobility.
  4.       Immobility begat hydrostatic engines, spores, and passive defense.
  5.       Hydrostatic engines begat maple syrup, fresh salad, bamboo, and venus fly traps.
  6.     Spores begat alternation of generations, pine cones and orchids.
  7.       Passive defense begat curry, digitalis and marijuana, as well as cactus spines and walnut shells.

The resources required for photosynthesis are diffuse:
light and carbon dioxide from above, and water and
minerals from below.  How does that dictate virtually
every aspect of plant biology?
For animals:
  1.      In the beginning was the mouth.
  2.       The mouth begat food-sensing organs and locomotion.
  3.       Food-sensing organs and locomotion begat the head.
  4.       The head begat response, behavior, instinct, sex, thought, and blog postings.

Finer iterations of this model can lead us to understand the difference between Acacia trees and savanna grasses, both struggling to survive in an African savanna, or the difference between mussels and barnacles vying for a spot on an intertidal rock.

Your homework is to think about these chains of cause and effect.  How does photosynthesis lead to curry?  I’ll return with a fuller discussion in the near future.

Literature cited:

Bortolus, A.  2008.  Error Cascades in the Biological Sciences: The Unwanted Consequences of Using Bad Taxonomy in Ecology.  Ambio 37 (2): 114-118.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Were the first carpels plicate or ascidiate?

[This article extends the discussion begun in my post "What's so primitive about Amborella?"]

The carpel is the distinctive seed chamber of the angiosperms, or flowering plants.  It is in fact the definitive feature of this major group.  When the first carpel evolved, the first angiosperm came into existence.  The carpel encloses, protects, and facilitates the fertilization of the ovules, which then mature as seeds. The carpel then becomes the fruit, and participates in the dispersal of the seeds.  In the flower, carpels occupy the center and are surrounded by stamens and tepals (petals and sepals).  In most modern angiosperms the carpels are joined together into a compound pistil (see "Were the first monocots syncarpous?)"

In those flowers in which the carpels remain separate, there are two fundamental shapes: plicate - resembling leaves that have folded with the opposite edges sealed together, and ascidiate - shaped like a vase or an urn.
The ascidiate carpels of Amborella
contain a single seed, and have a
large, folded stigma. A. the carpel
at the time of pollination.  B. the
 mature fruit, which is a drupe.
Drawing from Bailey and Swamy,
It is now clear that the three clades of the ANITA grade (Amborella, Nymphaeales and Austrobaileyales) are the most ancient branches of the flowering plants.  We assume that whatever characteristics they have in common were inherited from their common ancestor.   The carpels in this group are mostly ascidiate, which is variously described as vase-, urn-, or bottle-shaped.  The wall of the ascidiate carpel is smooth and seamless, tightly enclosing the contents but open at the top in the stigmatic region.  It resembles a sock pulled up around a foot.

Above the opening, which is blocked only by a drop of fluid, the stigma is typically prolonged along what can be described as the backbone of the carpel,  and ovules are attached in a line on the opposite side (i.e. in what might be called the "belly"), within the urn-shaped base.  Sometimes, as in Amborella, the stigma  is folded at the backbone, forming narrow flaps along each side.  During the growth of the carpel, tissues at the base (“a meristematic cross-zone between the primordium margins” – Endress & Doyle 2009) push the wall upward around the ovules.
After pollination the carpels of
Austrobaileya spread apart as they
swell with the developing seeds
within. Photo courtesy Dennis

The carpels of Austrobaileya are ascidiate, but
contain two rows of ovules opposite the
backbone.  The stigmas are pushed together
to form a common head for receiving pollen.
Photo courtesy Dennis Stevenson.
Ascidiate carpels contrast with carpels described as plicate, or folded.  A folded carpel, like a pea pod has the structure of a folded leaf.  Opposite the midrib or backbone of the carpel, the  margins of the hypothetical leaf blade are figuratively sewn together in a suture.  The suture is actually more like a zipper, as it forms as alternating cells from the two margins  expand and interlock with one another.  Many plicate carpels dry out as they mature, and split open along the suture to release their seeds, though just about any kind of fruit can develop from them. Plicate carpels are common among the higher branches of angiosperms: the magnolids, monocots, and eudicots.
Simple plicate carlpels, called follicles,
 can be seen most readily in the
 Ranunculaceae,  in genera like 
Aquilegia (columbine), Delphinium
Eranthis, and others. Drawing from 
Asa Gray's Botanical Textbook, 1879.
The pea pod is somewhat more specialized
than a follicle, as it has adapted to split
along both the suture and the backbone
 when it opens to release its seeds. The seeds
alternate along the two margins.  Drawing 

from Thomé 1877, Textbook of Structural and
Physiological Botany.

Follicles of the genus Eranthis
(Ranunculaceae) are quite leaf-like.
Because the earliest branching angiosperms have primarily ascidiate carpels, the simplest (most parsimonious) interpretation about the earliest carpels is that they were ascidiate as well (Endress & Doyle 2009, and others).  The corollary of this interpretation is that  the plicate carpel of the magnolids, eudicots and monocots must have evolved from one of these ancient ascidiate carpels.

As I have argued in earlier posts, however, these theoretical conclusions based on probability need to be tesed in the adaptive arena. In other worids, do they make sense in terms of "adaptive parsimony?" (see "Were the first monocots syncarpous?" for an explanation of this term)

In ancient seed ferns, such as this
Sphenopteris, seeds were
borne directly on large, frond-
like leaves. Drawing from Brown,
1935, The Plant Kingdom.
Ovules were originally borne directly on the leaves of ancient seed ferns, and on modified seed-leaves (megasporophylls) in later gymnosperms such as the cycads. According to traditional theory, the first carpel came about as a simple blade-like megasporophyll, with ovules along both edges, rolled or folded together, enclosing the ovules within a protective chamber.  The structure would have been very similar to a pea pod or a follicle.

An interesting alternate idea is the "mostly male hypothesis" (see Frohlich and Chase 2007)  in which early blade-like stamens became carpels by the genetic accident of ovules popping up where pollen sacs should have been.  Such things do happen, and are reminders that leaves and seed-leaves were originally one and the same.

The third possibility raised by the current phylogentic conclusions is that, instead of simply folding around the ovules, the first carpels formed by an ascidiate growth pattern, i.e. the base of the ancient ovule-bearing structure, or a leaf below it, formed a cup-like base that grew up around a group of ovules (or conceivably a single ovule as in Amborella, but I have already argued agains that in "What's so primitive about Amborella?").  At the same time, the backside of this cup-like structure would develop as a strong backbone, resembling the mid-rib of a leaf, the open top  developed a folded structure, and the ovules would come to be placed in two rows opposite the backbone. In terms of genetic and developmental processes, this seems to be a much more complex scenario than simply folding a leaf together. If this is indeed what happened, we need fossil evidence and/or genetic-developmental evidence to confirm it.

If there were a selective pressure for enclosing ancient ovules, the principle of evolution along the lines of least resistance (Stebbins 1974) would clearly favor the easier path of a folding leaf.  (see "G. L. Stebbins and the process of adaptive modification" for a full and detailed explanation of this evolutionary principle).

Though not directly ancestral to the angiosperms, the seed-leaves of the living gymnosperm genus Cycas illustrate the kinds of structures that might have folded together to form the first carpels.  Drawing from Asa Gray, 1879.
So is there a clash between cladistic parsimony and adaptive parsimony with respect the first carpels?  Yes and no.  First the "no" part.  We must remember that the cladistic studies that place ascidiate carpels at the base of the angiosperm tree were based on living angiosperms -  the crown group, and so have no bearing on what might have been happening in the stem group (the extinct angiosperms that preceded the common ancestor of all living angiosperms - see "the birthplace of the angiosperms").  There were probably carpels among extinct angiosperm ancestors long before the crown group ancestor evolved.  Therefore, there is no conflict between the idea that the first carpels were folded and the idea that the common ancestor of the living angiosperms had ascidiate carpels.  We are free to choose the folded leaf model for the first carpels.

Ascidiate carpels most likely evolved among early crown group angiosperms, and presumably evolved for a reason. Most ascidiate carpels, at least those in Amborella and most Austrobaileyales, mature as drupes or berries.  These brightly colored fleshy fruits may have been adaptations for improved dispersal by birds in shady forest environments, where these archaic plants survive today.

A number of gymnosperms, such as this yew (Taxus) has
a fruit-like layer that grows up around each seed. Similar
features can be found widely among different
angiosperms, including magnolids, eudicots and
 monocots, and may have been present in the
earliest angiosperms.  Photo by
Didier Descouens, posted on Wikipedia.
In the the first hypothetical leaf-like carpels, the unsealed edges probably simply reopened to release the mature seeds.  Quite possibly, these seeds were covered with colorful fruit-like layers called arils.  These arils were comsumed by birds, who in the process dispersed the seeds. Many gymnosperms, including cycads, junipers, podocarps, and yews have similar adaptations. As fleshy fruits evolved among the early members of the crown group, the fruity function of the aril was genetically transferred to the wall of the carpel itself.

In this scenario, the evolution of the ascidiate growth form was an adaptation to embed the ovules more securely within a uniform, sealed wall. The lower tissues could have grown together while leaving the open folded region just at the top.  Something similar happened in the evolution of both roses and apples, where tissues of the receptacle were extended up and around the separate carpels.

Now I return to the apparent re-evolution of plicate carpels from ascidiate carpels, as predicted by cladistic analysis. It is odd that simple, leaf-like carpels with marginal rows of ovules would have evolved from the decidedly less leaf-like ascidiate structure, rather than directly from an ancient carpel of essentially the same design.  The nature of the suture in modern plicate carpel strongly suggests the joining of opposite edges, and that ovules were attached in rows along those edges.

The carpels of Illicium are folded and split open
to release seeds, but only one seed is produced
per carpel, rather than a row along each margin.
They may have evolved from an ascidiate
carpel through expansion of the folded stigmatic
region. Drawing from Kerner & Oliver, 1895. The
Natural History of Plants.
 One possible scenario is suggested by an exceptional member of the Austrobaileyales, Illicium (star anise), which does have plicate carpels. If these evolved from ascidiate carpels, it is conceivable that the ascidiate portion contracted while the folded stigmatic region expanded.  Though the edges are pressed together and partially fused, this does not seem to be the same suture structure as found in other plicate angiosperms (Robertson and Tucker, 1979).  Also, there is only one seed in each Illicium carpel.  Evolution of carpel with marginal rows of ovules would require a different path, i.e. extending the stigmatic split down between two rows of ovules in something like Austrobaileya,  followed by union of the margins into a suture.  This again is a rather cumbersome scenario with no apparent adaptive value.

A simpler adaptive scenario is that a folded carpel with marginal rows of ovules was retained in some ancient crown group angiosperm, and this evolved directly into the more advanced form of plicate carpel with sutures found in the higher angiosperms.  The folded nature of the stigmatic region in Amborella  may in fact be a remnant of the earliest folded carpels, and the two rows of ovules in Austrobaileya another remnant.  So the pieces of the earliest folded carpels are still present among the ANITA grade, and may have been still together in the ancestor of magnolids, monocots, and eudicots.

Bailey, I. W. and G. L. Swamy. 1948.  Amborella trichopoda Baill., J. Arnold Arbor. 23:245-254, plus plates.

Endress, P. &  J. Doyle. 2009.  Reconstructing the ancestral angiosperm flower and its initial specializations. Am. J. Bot. 96(1): 22-66.  

Frohlich, M. W. & M. W. Chase, 2007.  After a dozen years of progress the origin of angiosperms is still a great mystery.  Nature 450: 1184-1189.

Robertson and Tucker, 1979.  Floral ontogeny of Illicium floridanum, with emphasis on stamen and carpel development.  Amer. J. Bot. 66(6): 605-617.

Stebbins, G. L.  1974.  Flowering Plants.  Evolution above the species level.  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  Cambridge, MA.