Phylogenetic analyses have identified the water lilies (Nymphaeales: Cabombaceae and Nymphaeaceae), together with four other small groups of flowering plants (the 'ANITA clades': Amborellaceae, Illiciales, Trimeniaceae, Austrobaileyaceae), as the first diverging lineages from the main branch of the angiosperm phylogenetic tree, but evidence of these groups in the earliest phases of the angiosperm fossil record has remained elusive. Here we report the earliest unequivocal evidence, based on fossil floral structures and associated pollen, of fossil plants related to members of the ANITA clades. This extends the history of the water lilies (Nymphaeales) back to the Early Cretaceous (125-115 million years) and into the oldest fossil assemblages that contain unequivocal angiosperm stamens and carpels. This discovery adds to the growing congruence between results from molecular-based analyses of relationships among angiosperms and the palaeobotanical record. It is also consistent with previous observations that the flowers of early angiosperms were generally very small compared with those of their living relatives.