Background and AimsHomeotic transitions are usually dismissed by population geneticists as credible modes of evolution due to their assumed negative impact on fitness. However, several lines of evidence suggest that such changes in organ identity have played an important role during the origin and subsequent evolution of the angiosperm flower. Better understanding of the performance of wild populations of floral homeotic varieties should help to clarify the evolutionary potential of homeotic mut
ants. Wild populations of plants with changes in floral symmetry, or with reproductive organs replacing perianth organs or sepals replacing petals have already been documented. However, although double-flowered varieties are quite popular as ornamental and garden plants, they are rarely found in the wild and, if they are, usually occur only as rare mutant individuals, probably because of their low fitness relative to the wild-type. We therefore investigated a double-flowered variety of lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor flore pleno (fl. pl.), that is reported to have existed in the wild for at least 160 years. To assess the merits of this plant as a new model system for investigations on the evolutionary potential of double-flowered varieties we explored the morphological details and distribution of the mutant phenotype.MethodsThe floral morphology of the double-flowered variety and of a nearby population of wild-type plants was investigated by means of visual inspection and light microscopy of flowers, the latter involving dissected or sectioned floral organs.Key ResultsThe double-flowered variety was found in several patches covering dozens of square metres in a forest within the city limits of Jena (Germany). It appears to produce fewer flowers than the wild-type, and its flowers are purple rather than blue. Most sepals in the first floral whorl resemble those in the wild-type, although occasionally one sepal is broadened and twisted. The structure of second-whorl petals is very similar to that of the wild-type, but their number per flower is more variable. The double-flowered character is due to partial or complete transformation of stamens in the third whorl into petaloid organs. Occasionally, ‘flowers within flowers’ also develop on elongated pedicels in the double-flowered variety.ConclusionsThe flowers of V. minor fl. pl. show meristic as well as homeotic changes, and occasionally other developmental abnormalities such as mis-shaped sepals or loss of floral determinacy. V. minor fl. pl. thus adds to a growing list of natural floral homeotic varieties that have established persistent populations in the wild. Our case study documents that even mutant varieties that have reproductive organs partially transformed into perianth organs can persist in the wild for centuries. This finding makes it at least conceivable that even double-flowered varieties have the potential to establish new evolutionary lineages, and hence may contribute to macroevolutionary transitions and cladogenesis.