Rampant evolutionary transitions towards the woody growth form

Derived woodiness

Why did plants become woody? I am fascinated to understand the climatic and genetic drivers of wood formation that has occurred hundreds of times during evolutionary history.


Dr. Frederic Lens
Groupleader Functional Traits



Wood formation is a fundamental evolutionary innovation that gave rise to countless woody species. The evolutionary transition from herbaceousness towards (phylogenetically) derived woodiness is a peculiar phenomenon dating back to Darwin's original observations. However, after about 180 years, scientists still have not figured out why plants became woody and why this has happened so frequently during evolution.

Therefore, we have compiled the first global derived woodiness database with about 7000 species belonging to 700 independent lineages. Most of the derived woody species thrive in continental regions with recurrent drought cycles. This has laid the foundation for our novel hypothesis, proposing drought as a major driver of the evolutionary transitions towards woodiness across most lineages. My team has already obtained preliminary experimental support for this hypothesis in several plant groups, and we are currently looking into alternative drivers of wood formation across flowering plants. Another major research question is whether woodiness has triggered diversification or rather results in an evolutionary dead end.

Who works
on this project?

At Naturalis the researchers below work on this project:

Who do we
work with

Naturalis researchers work together on this project with:

In the

  • Artikel nos.nl: Een aardbeienboom als oplossing voor voedseltekorten (in Dutch)
  • Publication Nature Today (in Dutch)
  • BiodiversityXL presentation on YouTube: How do plants adapt to drought stress? (in English)
Wood anatomy plate