The Winteraceae are traditionally regarded as the least-specialized descendents of the first flowering plants, based largely on their lack of xylem vessels. Since vessels have been viewed as a key innovation for angiosperm diversification, Winteraceae have been portrayed as declining relicts, limited to wet forest habitats where their tracheid-based wood does not impose a significant hydraulic constraints. In contrast, phylogenetic analyses place Winteraceae among angiosperm clades with vessels, indicating that their vesselless wood is derived rather than primitive, whereas extension of the Winteraceae fossil record into the Early Cretaceous suggests a more complex ecological history than has been deduced from their current distribution. However, the selective regime and ecological events underlying the possible loss of vessels in Winteraceae have remained enigmatic. Here we examine the hypothesis that vessels were lost as an adaptation to freezing-prone environments in Winteraceae by measuring the responses of xylem water transport to freezing for a diverse group of Winteraceae taxa as compared to Canella winterana (Canellaceae, a close relative with vessels) and sympatric conifer taxa. We found that mean percent loss of xylem water transport capacity following freeze-thaw varied from 0% to 6% for Winteraceae species from freezing-prone temperate climates and approximately 20% in those taxa from tropical (nonfreezing) climates. Similarly, conifers exhibit almost no decrease in xylem hydraulic conductivity following freezing. In contrast, water transport in Canella stems is nearly 85% blocked after freeze-thaw. Although vessel-bearing wood of Canella possesses considerably greaterhydraulic capacity than Winteraceae, nearly 20% of xylem hydraulic conductance remains, a value that is comparable to the hydraulic capacity of vesselless Winteraceae xylem, if the proportion of hydraulic flow through vessels (modeled as ideal capillaries) is removed. Thus, the evolutionary removal of vessels may not necessarily require a deleterious shift to an ineffective vascular system. By integrating Winteraceae's phylogenetic relationships and fossil history with physiological and ecological observations, we suggest that, as ancestors of modern Winteraceae passed through temperate conditions present in Southern Gondwana during the Early Cretaceous, they were exposed to selective pressures against vessel-possession and returned to a vascular system relying on tracheids. These results suggest that the vesselless condition is advantageous in freezing-prone areas, which is supported by the strong bias in the ecological abundance of Winteraceae to wet temperate and tropical alpine habitats, rather than a retained feature from the first vesselless angiosperms. We believe that vesselless wood plays an important role in the ecological abundance of Winteraceae in Southern Hemisphere temperate environments by enabling the retention of leaves and photosynthesis in the face of frequent freeze-thaw events.
Corresponding Editor: T. Givnish