Space & Innovation

Prehistoric Coffee Ancestor Found in Amber

An ancient relative of your morning coffee has just been discovered, and appears to be highly poisonous. Continue reading →

Fossil flowers found perfectly preserved in amber represent a new plant species that's a 45-million-year-old relative of coffee, according to new research.

Named Strychnos electri, after the Greek word for amber (electron), the flowers represent the first-ever fossils of an asterid, which is a family of flowering plants that not only later gave us coffee, but also sunflowers, peppers, potatoes, mint - and deadly poisons.

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The flowers, described in the journal Nature Plants, belong to the dark side of the family. They are in the genus Strychnos, which ultimately gave rise to some of the world's most famous poisons, including strychnine and curare. The prehistoric flowers' attractiveness and incredible state of preservation belie their toxicity.

"The specimens are beautiful, perfectly preserved fossil flowers, which at one point in time were borne by plants that lived in a steamy tropical forest with both large and small trees, climbing vines, palms, grasses and other vegetation," said Oregon State professor George Poinar, Jr., an expert in plant and animal life forms preserved in amber, in a release.

"Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past," he continued. "It shows that the asterids, which later gave humans all types of foods and other products, were already evolving many millions of years ago."

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Poinar and his team recently made the discovery while analyzing amber that had been collected in the Dominican Republic in 1986. He and his colleagues explained that asterids are among Earth's most important and diverse plants, with 10 orders, 98 families, and about 80,000 species. They represent about one-third of all the earth's diversity of angiosperms, or flowering plants.

The new find shows that plants in the very poisonous genus existed for many millions of years before humans evolved from our primate ancestors.

Humans have clearly since put asterids to good use, considering how common the edible ones are in our diets. As for the poisonous plants, their toxic compounds have been added to blow-gun weapons, rat control, and have even been featured in classic murder mysteries such as Sherlock Holmes stories and the movie "Psycho."

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In lower doses, curare has been used as a muscle relaxant in surgery. There are now about 200 species of Strychnos plants around the world, in forms ranging from shrubs to trees and woody climbing vines, mostly in the tropics. They are still being studied for medicinal properties, such as for the treatment of parasitic worm infections and even as drugs to treat malaria.

"The discovery of this new species in a 30-year-old amber collection highlights that we still have many undiscovered species hidden away in natural history collections worldwide and not enough taxonomic experts to work through them," co-author Lena Struwe said. "Strychnos electri has likely been extinct for a long time, but many new species living and, unfortunately, soon-to-be-extinct species are discovered by scientists every year."

A closeup of the fossil shows the recurved petal lobes and small, tightly attached anthers with pollen in the mouth of the flower.

If you're looking to help the bees in your hood, consider adding some native flowering plants to your garden. "Think of the flowers your grandmother used in her garden as a practical guide, especially when using nonnative plants," advises a USDA report. "The pollinators will thank you." Looking for some ideas? Check out these flowering plants that can help give bees a boost.

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Crocus are a good choice to attract bees in the early spring. They're also pollinated by butterflies.

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Asters are perennials that provide nectar and pollen, and do well when planted in late summer and fall.

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Geraniums are another pollinator-friendly perennial.

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The Calendula is an annual that's sometimes called a pot marigold.

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Cleome are annuals that are native to the western United States, and they provide pollen in summer to bees.

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Bees loves sunflowers and sometimes even stop on them to catch a few zzzzs.

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Cut flowers, including zinnia (above), celosia, ageratum and wildflowers like goldenrod are bumble bee magnets. So are herbs including lavendar, anise hyssop, motherwort, basil and sage. Want to see more flowers -- and herbs to help bees? Check out this

cool illustration

from American Bee Journal.