Angiosperms first appeared during the Early Cretaceous, and within 30 million years they reigned over many floras worldwide. Associated with this rise to prominence, angiosperms produced a spectrum of reproductive and vegetative innovations, which produced a cascade of ecological consequences that altered the ecology and biogeochemistry of the planet. The pace, pattern and phylogenetic systematics of the Cretaceous angiosperm diversification are broadly sketched out. However, the ecophysiology and environmental interactions that energized the early angiosperm radiation remain unresolved. This constrains our ability to diagnose the selective pressures and habitat contexts responsible for the evolution of fundamental angiosperm features, such as flowers, rapid growth, xylem vessels and net-veined leaves, which in association with environmental opportunities, drove waves of phylogenetic and ecological diversification. Here, we consider our current understanding of early angiosperm ecophysiology. We focus on comparative patterns of ecophysiological evolution, emphasizing carbon- and water-use traits, by merging recent molecular phylogenetic studies with physiological studies focused on extant basal angiosperms. In doing so,we discuss how early angiosperms established a roothold in preexisting Mesozoic plant communities, and how these events canalized subsequent bursts of angiosperm diversification during the Aptian-Albian.