An important aspect of the evolution of carpel closure, or angiospermy, is the relationship between pollen tube growth patterns and internalization of the pollen-tube pathway. True carpel closure, involving postgenital fusion of inner carpel margins, is inferred to have arisen once within the ancient order Nymphaeales, in the common ancestor of Nymphaeaceae. We studied pollen tube development, from pollination to fertilization, in a natural population of Nymphaea odorata, using hand pollinations and timed flower collections. Pollen germinates in stigmatic secretions within 15 min and pollen tubes enter subdermal transmitting tissue within an hour, following wide intercellular spaces towards the zone of postgenital fusion. At the zone of fusion they turn downwards to grow in narrow spaces between interlocked cells and then wander freely to ovules within ovarian secretions. The pollen-tube pathway is 2–6 mm long and upper ovules are first penetrated 2.5 h after pollination. Pollen tubes grow at rates of approximately 1 mm/h whether in stigmatic fluid, transmitting tissues or ovarian secretions. Pollen-tube pathways are structurally diverse across Nymphaeales, yet their pollen tubes have similar morphologies and rapid growth rates. This pattern suggests pollen tube growth innovations preceded and were essential for the evolution of complete carpel closure. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 162, 581–593.