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American plants that have gone extinct

  • American plants that have gone extinct

    The world is facing an extinction crisis. We are currently in the midst of what scientists call the Anthropocene extinction, a mass extinction event driven by human actions such as predation and urbanization. Of the 8 million total animal and plant species on Earth, about 1 million are currently threatened with extinction, according to a recently released global assessment by the U.N. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This one in eight rate is far higher than the average extinction rates of the past 10 million years—and in many places, conditions are only getting direr.

    While we often think of extinction in terms of faraway places like Antarctica or the Amazon rainforest, this cruel process is actually taking place in our own backyards. David Wilcove, a conservation scientist from Princeton University, estimates that there are 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species in the U.S.—that’s up to 18% of our country’s plants and animals. And while it’s easy to study the population decline of large animals like the American bison or the California condor, smaller animals and plants are harder to track, leaving many scientists to suspect that sweeping estimates like Wilcove’s are far under the mark.

    In a paper published in Nature this past June, a team of biologists led by Aelys Humphreys of Stockholm University set out to determine the current state of plant extinction by compiling species lists from around the world. They found that, between 1900 and 2018, seed plants were lost at a rate of about 25.6 extinctions per million species-years; in other words, an average of 2.3 species have gone extinct each year for the past 250 years. Still, even these estimates are likely low due to a lack of information: It takes time to find a new plant and even more time to definitively characterize it as a new plant. Sometimes, a new plant is found only once, described, and then never seen again, to the great dismay of botanists around the world.

    Stacker used the database of extinct plants compiled by Humphreys and her team to develop a list of 21 plants that were lost to science here in America. Many of these plants were collected and classified by botanists exploring the western and southern parts of America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, then driven to extinction by urbanization and other environmental changes later in the 20th century. The list is organized here by plant group (annual herb, herbaceous perennial, or woody perennial), then by family.

    Read on to discover these lost American gems, from a flowering tree described by the founder of the New York Botanical Garden to a tiny parasitic flower that botanists still search for today.

    You may also like: Rare animals featured in Planet Earth, Our Planet, and other nature documentaries

  • Shinyfruit popcornflower

    - Scientific name: Plagiobothrys lamprocarpus
    - Family: Boraginaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Temperate
    - Former home range: Oregon

    This small herb was discovered in 1921 by Charles Piper, a botanist and longtime worker for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Grants Pass, Ore. The species hasn’t been sighted again since Piper’s initial collection and is now presumed extinct; agricultural and urban developments are the suspected causes of this loss.

  • Mayacamas popcornflower

    - Scientific name: Plagiobothrys lithocaryus
    - Family: Boraginaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Temperate
    - Former home range: California

    In 1884, the Mayacamas popcornflower was spotted in northern California by Mary Katharine Brandegee, a pioneering female scientist who was the third woman to ever matriculate at the medical school of the University of California. The flower hasn’t been seen since 1903—like its relative, the shinyfruit popcornflower, it may have fallen prey to urban development on the West Coast.

  • Lemmon's jewelflower

    - Scientific name: Streptanthus lemmonii
    - Family: Brassicaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Subtropical
    - Former home range: Arizona

    Lemmon’s jewelflower was an oddly shaped flower in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), distinguished by large, oblong leaves and a number of thin tulip-like buds. While this species hasn’t been seen in the wild since the 1940s, its close relative, Caulanthus lemmonii (also colloquially called Lemmon’s jewelflower), lives on in southern California.

  • Merced monardella

    - Scientific name: Monardella leucocephala
    - Family: Lamiaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Subtropical
    - Former home range: California

    Merced monardella, like other plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae), had highly aromatic leaves and flowers. This species was last spotted in California’s grasslands in 1941; botanists believe it was pushed out by agricultural expansion in the state. Recent searches for it in 1990 and 1997 have been fruitless.

  • Pringle monardella

    - Scientific name: Monardella pringlei
    - Family: Lamiaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Subtropical
    - Former home range: California

    Pringle monardella was first identified in 1882. Like its relative, the Merced monardella, this plant was last seen in 1941; its habitat in California’s scrublands was lost to urbanization.

  • Caddo false foxglove

    - Scientific name: Agalinis caddoensis
    - Family: Scrophulariaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Subtropical
    - Former home range: Louisiana

    In 1913, the botanist Francis Pennell discovered a population of Caddo false foxglove flowers in Caddo Parish, near the city of Shreveport in Louisiana. Other scientists have searched for the species in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s to no avail, but the type of dry, loamy oak forest that Pennell described in his collection notes still survives elsewhere in the state, so botanists are optimistic that this small, purple flower may be rediscovered.

  • Nuttall's false foxglove

    - Scientific name: Agalinis nuttallii
    - Family: Scrophulariaceae
    - Group: Annual herb
    - Climate: Temperate
    - Former home range: Oklahoma, Arkansas

    This flower species, similar to its relative, the Caddo false foxglove, is known from a singular population: botanist and zoologist Thomas Nuttall found it in 1819 near the Arkansas River, near the border of present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma. Nuttall’s false foxglove was tragically left off of modern plant lists and records, and was overlooked as a potential conservation priority until 1995.

  • Banded Trinity

    - Scientific name: Thismia americana
    - Family: Burmanniaceae
    - Group: Herbaceous perennial
    - Climate: Temperate
    - Former home range: Illinois

    University of Chicago graduate student Norma Pfeiffer discovered the banded Trinity in 1914 while exploring the wetlands around Lake Calumet. She became fascinated by the tiny white plant and made it the subject of her doctoral thesis; as she discovered, banded Trinity mostly lived underground, taking nutrients from fungi in the soil, and only popped aboveground in the summer to flower and reproduce. The flower caught the attention of botanists around the world, but before any other scientists could research its fascinating properties, it disappeared in 1916 when a barn was built near its habitat—and has been missing ever since. Still, naturalists go searching for the parasitic plant every year in what has been dubbed the Thismia Hunt.

  • Livermore sandwort

    - Scientific name: Arenaria livermorensis
    - Family: Caryophyllaceae
    - Group: Herbaceous perennial
    - Climate: Temperate
    - Former home range: Texas

    Livermore sandwort, a matted, moss-like plant, was only found in the Davis Mountains in western Texas, where it grew in the crevices of cliffs and bare walls around 7,000 feet above sea level. The species is thought to be related to A. lycopodioides, a similar mossy plant that lives in the mountains of central Mexico.

  • Shasta River mariposa lily

    - Scientific name: Calochortus monanthus
    - Family: Liliaceae
    - Group: Herbaceous perennial
    - Climate: Subtropical
    - Former home range: California

    American botanist Edward Lee Greene named or redescribed over 4,000 species on the West Coast over his lifetime, from 1843 to 1915. One of these species was the Shasta River mariposa lily, a small flower with three pink petals, which he found on the banks of the Shasta River in Siskiyou County, Calif. The flower has not been seen since.

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