Background Most angiosperms present flowers in inflorescences, which play roles in reproduction, primarily related to pollination, beyond those served by individual flowers alone. An inflorescence's overall reproductive contribution depends primarily on the three-dimensional arrangement of the floral canopy and its dynamics during its flowering period. These features depend in turn on characteristics of the underlying branching structure (scaffold) that supports and supplies water and nutrients to the floral canopy. This scaffold is produced by developmental algorithms that are genetically specified and hormonally mediated. Thus, the extensive inflorescence diversity evident among angiosperms evolves through changes in the developmental programmes that specify scaffold characteristics, which in turn modify canopy features that promote reproductive performance in a particular pollination and mating environment. Nevertheless, developmental and ecological aspects of inflorescences have typically been studied independently, limiting comprehensive understanding of the relations between inflorescence form, reproductive function, and evolution.
Scope This review fosters an integrated perspective on inflorescences by summarizing aspects of their development and pollination function that enable and guide inflorescence evolution and diversification.
Conclusions The architecture of flowering inflorescences comprises three related components: topology (branching patterns, flower number), geometry (phyllotaxis, internode and pedicel lengths, three-dimensional flower arrangement) and phenology (flower opening rate and longevity, dichogamy). Genetic and developmental evidence reveals that these components are largely subject to quantitative control. Consequently, inflorescence evolution proceeds along a multidimensional continuum. Nevertheless, some combinations of topology, geometry and phenology are represented more commonly than others, because they serve reproductive function particularly effectively. For wind-pollinated species, these combinations often represent compromise solutions to the conflicting physical influences on pollen removal, transport and deposition. For animal-pollinated species, dominant selective influences include the conflicting benefits of large displays for attracting pollinators and of small displays for limiting among-flower self-pollination. The variety of architectural components that comprise inflorescences enable diverse resolutions of these conflicts.
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