• ancestral character state estimation;
  • basal angiosperm;
  • character diversification;
  • evolution;
  • growth form;
  • leaf litter decomposability;
  • magnoliids;
  • Piperales;
  • plant–soil (below-ground) interactions


  1. Litter decomposition has been a key driver of carbon and nutrient cycling in the present and past. Based on extant species data, there is a great deal of variation in litter decomposability among major plant lineages, suggesting potential shifts in plant effects on carbon and nutrient cycling during the early evolutionary history of angiosperms.
  2. Existing data suggest that eudicot species produce faster decomposing litter compared to gymnosperms, ferns and mosses. One of the missing puzzle pieces in this transition is the basal angiosperms, the functional role of which in past carbon and nutrient cycling has seldom been investigated. We hypothesized that owing to constraints on leaf and plant design related to hydraulic capacity, basal angiosperm trees should generally have resource conservative leaves of low decomposability and that fast-decomposing leaves may only be found in short-statured taxa.
  3. We performed a litterbag experiment with simultaneous outdoor incubation of leaf litters in a common environment, including 86 basal angiosperm species (including the magnoliid lineage), 33 eudicots, five gymnosperms and four ferns. We fit a nonlinear model to the decomposition data, and each species’ decomposability was estimated using the proportional rate of mass loss through the experiment.
  4. The mass loss rates were 59.2% lower in basal angiosperms than in eudicot trees. There was one exceptional group within basal angiosperms: the Piperales had higher k values than other magnoliid lineages, but all of the free-standing species were short. Eudicots had higher k values overall and covered a range of plant statures from small-statured herbs to big woody trees.
  5. Synthesis. Understanding the ecosystem-level effects of the angiosperm rise to dominance is a crucial goal. Our results indicated that, among generally slow-decomposing magnoliid lineages, only the Piperales have fast decomposition rate associated with small plant statures. Thus it is unlikely that early magnoliid trees were both forest canopy dominants and produced resource acquisitive leaves turning into fast decomposable litter during the evolutionary history of angiosperms.