Fossil data have been interpreted as indicating that Late Cretaceous tropical forests were open and dry adapted and that modern closed-canopy rain forest did not originate until after the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T) boundary. However, some mid-Cretaceous leaf floras have been interpreted as rain forest. Molecular divergence-time estimates within the clade Malpighiales, which constitute a large percentage of species in the shaded, shrub, and small tree layer in tropical rain forests worldwide, provide new tests of these hypotheses. We estimate that all 28 major lineages (i.e., traditionally recognized families) within this clade originated in tropical rain forest well before the Tertiary, mostly during the Albian and Cenomanian (112-94 Ma). Their rapid rise in the mid-Cretaceous may have resulted from the origin of adaptations to survive and reproduce under a closed forest canopy. This pattern may also be paralleled by other similarly diverse lineages and supports fossil indications that closed-canopy tropical rain forests existed well before the K/T boundary. This case illustrates that dated phylogenies can provide an important new source of evidence bearing on the timing of major environmental changes, which may be especially useful when fossil evidence is limited or controversial.