Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Archaeopteris is the earliest known modern tree


Archaeopteris is an extinct plant which is of botanical interest for two reasons. It was the main component of the earliest forests until its extinction around the Devonian/Carboniferous boundary1,3, and phylogenetically, it is the free-sporing taxon that shares the most characteristics with the seed plants4,5. Here we describe the largest group of anatomically preserved Archaeopteris remains ever found, from the Famennian marine beds of south-eastern Morocco6, and provide the first evidence that, in terms of development and branching strategies, these 370-million-year-old plants were the earliest known modern trees. This modernization involved the evolution of four characteristics: a lateral branching syndrome similar to the axillary branching of early seed plants; adventitious latent primordia similar to those produced by living trees, which eventually develop into roots on stem cuttings; nodal zones as important sites for the subsequent development of lateral organs; and wood anatomy strategies that minimize the mechanical stresses caused by perennial branch growth.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Archaeopteris, Early Famennian of Morocco.


  1. Fairon-Demaret, M. Some uppermost Devonian megafloras: a stratigraphical review. Ann. Soc. Géol. Belgique 109, 43–48 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Beerbower, R. et al. in Terrestrial Ecosystems Through Time (ed. Behrensmeyer, A. K.) 205–325 (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Scheckler, S. E. Geology, floristics, and paleoecology of Late Devonian coal swamps from Appalachian Laurentia (U.S.A.). Ann. Soc. Géol. Belgique 109, 209–222 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Rothwell, G. W. & Serbet, R. Lignophyte phylogeny and the evolution of spermatophytes: a numerical cladistic analysis. Syst. Bot. 19, 443–482 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Nixon, K. C., Crepet, W. L., Stevenson, D. & Friis, E. M. Areevaluation of seed plant phylogeny. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 81, 484–533 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Wendt, J. & Belka, Z. Age and depositional environment of Upper Devonian (Early Frasnian to Early Famennian) black shales and limestones (Kellwasser facies) in the eastern-Anti-Atlas, Morocco. Facies 25, 51–90 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Beck, C. B. & Wight, D. C. in Origin and Evolution of Gymnosperms (ed. Beck, C. B.) 1–84 (Columbia University Press, New York, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Beck, C. B. On the anatomy and morphology of lateral branch systems of Archaeopteris. Am. J. Bot. 58, 758–784 (1971).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Carluccio, L. M., Hueber, F. M. & Banks, H. P. Archaeopteris macilenta, anatomy and morphology of its front. Am. J. Bot. 53, 719–730 (1966).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Kenrick, P. & Fairon-Demaret, M. Archaeopteris roemeriana (Göppert) sensu Stockmans, 1948 from the Upper Famennian of Belgium: anatomy and leaf polymorphism. Bull. Inst. R. Sci. Nat. Belgique, Sci. Terre 61, 179–195 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Scheckler, S. E. Ontogeny of progymnosperms. II. Shoots of Upper Devonian Archaeopteridales. Can. J. Bot. 56, 3136–3170 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Galtier, J. & Holmes, J. New observations on the branching of Carboniferous ferns and pteridosperms. Ann. Bot. 49, 737–746 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Trivett, M. L. An architectural analysis of Archaeopteris, a fossil tree with pseudomonopodial and opportunistic adventitious growth. Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 111, 301–329 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Meyer-Berthaud, B., Wendt, J. & Galtier, J. First record of a large Callixylon trunk from the Late Devonian of Gondwana. Geol. Mag. 134, 847–853 (1997).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Fink, S. Adventitious root primordia — The cause of abnormally broad xylem rays in hardwood and softwoods. IAWA Bull. n.s. 3, 31–38 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Larson, P. R. The Vascular Cambium: Development and Structure 1–725 (Springer, Berlin, 1994).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Mattheck, C. & Kubler, H. Wood — The Internal Optimization of Trees 1–129 (Springer, Berlin, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Zobel, B. J. & van Buijtenen, J. P. Wood Variation: its Causes and Control 1–363 (Springer, Berlin, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Portions of this study were supported by a sabbatical research leave from VPI & SU and a grant from the National Science Foundation (USA), Division of Integrative Biology and Neuroscience, Program for Ecological and Evolutionary Physiology (to S.E.S.). We thank M. Boutaleb and A. Fadile for the issue of working permits and the export of samples; S.Doering, R. Feist, B. Kaufmann, C. Klug and D.Korn for advice in the field; and J. Guiraud and L.Meslin for technical help. This work was supported by grants from IGCP (North Gondwanan mid-Palaeozoic biodynamics) and CNRS.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brigitte Meyer-Berthaud.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Meyer-Berthaud, B., Scheckler, S. & Wendt, J. Archaeopteris is the earliest known modern tree. Nature 398, 700–701 (1999).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing