As an apparel brand that plants 10 trees for each item purchased, trees are interesting and important to us! Learning about trees that are now extinct can help us protect today’s critically endangered trees.
At this point nearly everyone is aware of the growing list of extinct animals, but what about extinct plants? How often do plants and trees become extinct? Over time, it happens with some degree of regularity. There were are some wild extinct plants from hundreds of millions of years ago.
More recently however (post 1600 A.D.), human interference has resulted in the dramatic increase in extinction rates for plants and animals due to overpopulation, pollution, and exploitation of natural resources. Humans are destroying the Earth’s natural habitats at an alarming rate, and plant and animal species are paying the price. A lot of the most incredible forests are being destroyed.
So what better way is there to remember the past and force ourselves to examine present habits in order to prepare for the future than to look back on ten amazing, extinct trees that disappeared too soon!
Related blog: Want to get a job planting trees? Here’s how.
The Sigillaria tree is one you would probably find strange today. It’s a tree that doesn’t reproduce via seeds, like today’s deciduous and coniferous trees do. It was a spore-bearing, tree-like plant that flourished in the late Carboniferous period.
Sigillaria was tall, growing up to 30 meters, occasionally forked, and bore spores from cone-like structures that hung from its stems. The tree’s trunk grew in a spiral, and the trunk was plated with photosynthetic tissue, indicating that the trees were probably green from canopy to trunk.
It had a relatively short life period and matured quickly over just a few short years, whereas many large trees today take decades, sometimes centuries to reach their full size.
Want to learn more about Sigillaria? Check out our blog all about this extinct tree.
Some researchers believe that Sigillaria was monocarpic, meaning that once reproduction occurred, the tree died. This has not yet been proven.
The tree’s fossils are found all over the world in places like the United States, Canada, China, and Zimbabwe. It became extinct around 300 million years ago.
To call Sigillaria a tree is a bit of a misnomer. It certainly looked like a large, stunning tree, but is actually related to the lycopsids family, meaning it is most closely linked to present day club moss.
Tree-sized moss? You heard that right.
Lepidodendron holds an interesting nickname “the scale tree,” due to fossilized remains of its trunk looking oddly like the scales of a reptile. Like the Sigillaria, Lepidodendron is more closely related to club moss than trees. They reached heights of over 30 meters with trunks that sometimes exceeded 1 meter in diameter.
The closely packed diamond-shape of the leaf scars left on the trees look very similar to alligator skin, and petrified trunks were often purported to be the fossilized remains of giant reptiles by amateurs at fairs throughout the 19th century.
Similar to Sigillaria, Lepidodendron reproduced not by seeds, but by spores delivered through cone structures. The trees lived between 10 and 15 years and most species of Lepidodendron were probably monocarpic, dying after reproducing toward the end of their lives.
Lepidodendron was not a woody tree. Its trunk was comprised primarily of green, soft tissues. Scientists compare it to being a giant herb. The trunk could grow thick but it did not grow bark the way modern trees do. Lepidodendron forests were dense, with up to 2,000 trees per hectare. This was made possibly by their unusual growth patters. Lepidodendron grew as a straight pole until maturity, at which point the trees began branching out.
Lepidodendron, much like the Sigillaria, went extinct approximately 300 million years ago. Their niche was replaced largely by conifers, similar to the trees we see growing in our forests today.
Araucarioxylon arizonicum is a species of conifer that went extinct about 200 million years ago. It’s the state fossil for the U.S. state of Arizona. Petrified versions of the tree can be found throughout the badlands of Northern Arizona in a 378 square kilometer park known as Petrified Forest National Park.
The tree was truly remarkable. It had an enormous trunk and is sometimes called “rainbow wood” because of the wide variety of colors that fossilized parts of the tree can provide. Red and yellow colors are caused by iron oxide. Some trees may look purple due to fine spherules of hematite found in the quartz matrix.
The tree lived during the Triassic period when Arizona was a dense, tropical area, unlike the desert that it is today. They became extinct between 200 and 250 million years ago. They could grow as tall as 60 meters.
An extinct species of coniferous tree from Patagonia, Argentina, Araucaria mirabilis were 100 metres tall, and the dominant species in a forest buried by a volcanic eruption 160 million years ago.
The trees were covered by volcanic ash just as their pinecones had fully matured. These pinecone specimens have been collected by locals in the area as keepsakes for the past several centuries.
Saint Helena Olive
The Saint Helena Olive stands apart from the other trees on this list for one glaring reason – it went extinct not hundreds of millions of years ago, but in 1994. It was endemic to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. The Saint Helena Olive (Nesiota elliptica) is not actually a member of the olive family. Rather, it is more closely related to the jujube tree.
The last living specimen cultivated in captivity died in December 2003, despite aggressive conservation efforts.
The tree became increasingly rare in the 19th century when only 12-15 specimens were recorded on the island. The final wild specimen died in 1994, while the last in cultivation died in 2003.
Human encroachment and activity were the cause of the tree’s extinction. People, exploiting the natural resources of the island for more than four centuries, had deforested large swaths of the island in order to graze animals like goats. The tree became confined to too small an area, and because of its limited population, was unable to remain genetically viable.
The Saint Helena Olive is a prime example of why tree planting is so important.
Like the Saint Helena Olive tree, Wood’s Cycad (Encephalartos woodii) went extinct in the wild more recently. The last known wild specimen died in 1916. It is one of the rarest plants on Earth now, cultivated only in captivity.
Wood’s Cycad is endemic to the oNgoye Forest of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Only a cluster of four specimens was ever found (1895), and that number fell to a single three meter high tree in 1916. It was that year the the tree was removed and sent to the Government Botanist in Pretoria, where it later did in 1964.
All remaining specimens of the tree are clones of this final trunk. Unless a female specimen is found, it will never naturally reproduce again. It has, however, successfully been hybridized with Encephalartos natalensis.
The trees can be found in various botanical institutions around the world, but not in the wild. It is not currently known why Wood’s Cycad was driven to extinction in the wild. It may not have been particularly abundant to begin with. Right now, conservation efforts are largely on hold in the hopes that a female plant will eventually be found in the wild. Currently the only trees are cloned males. Without a viable female specimen, the species will not be able to live on in the wild.
There is hope that a female will be found or that one of the existing clones will undergo a spontaneous sex change, which has been documented in other species of cycads. Researchers are currently backcrossing female hybrid offspring with male Wood’s Cycads in the hopes that they will eventually produce a genetically “pure” female, but it takes a very long time for cycads to mature sexually. Don’t expect to see Wood’s Cycad growing in the wild again any time soon.
Franklinia also became extinct during the era of man, though much less recently. The last known sighting of Franklinia in its native range was in 1803.
Native to the Altamaha River Valley in Georgia, USA, Franklinia iis a genus in the tea plant family. It is the only species in this fenus. It can be found at over 1000 sites around the world today. Doesn’t exactly sound “extinct”, right?
However, all of these ornamental trees known to exist today were cultivated from seeds collected in the 1770s by botanists John and William Bartram in Philadelphia.
The tree looks more like a large shrub than a tree. It can grow up to 7 and a half meters and is prized for its fragrant white blossoms. It grows in a pyramid shape and requires more than a year to develop a single pod of seeds. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that when multiple Franklinia are planted near to one another, their seeds develop faster.
The cause of its extinction in the wild is not known, but may have been the result of fire, flood, over-collection by plant collectors, and fungal disease introduced with the cultivation of cotton plants.
Cyanea superba is a rare plant that, much like the cycad above, is extinct in the wild but is still cultivated in captivity. The date of its extinction is complicated, as different subspecies of the plant became extinct at varying dates between 1932 and 2002.
Originally endemic to the island of Oahu, the two subspecies of Cyanea superba were found in the lowland forest habitat of the Waianae and Ko’olau Mountains. Ssp. regina has not been seen since 1932, whereas ssp. superba was counted at sixty plants in the 1970s. By 2002, all had died.
Today, Cyanea superba is being propagated in facilities across Hawaii, and the United States army has collected over 50,000 seeds and put them in storage.
The cause of extinction is a result of several factors. The plants were forced to compete with invasive plant species and fell victim to habitat destruction as well as consumption by feral pigs, rats, and non-native slugs. Arson is a chief threat to conservation efforts.
When Kokia cookei was first discovered in the 1860s, only three trees could be located. It’s a small, deciduous tree known to have existed in the lowlands of western Moloka’i, one of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.
It was probably widespread at one point, but by the time it was found by western researchers, it was all but gone. At one point in history, the lowlands were probably covered in a dense forest, but Polynesian settlers, beginning in the year 1000 CE, likely deforested large portions of it to make room for agriculture.
The Kokia cookei seems somewhat resilient to the changes in its native environment, making it perhaps possible that one day it will grow wild where it once resided.
It was presumed extinct in the 1950s when the last seedling died, until 1970 when a single specimen was found. This specimen died eight years later in a fire, though not before a branch was taken and grafted onto another related, and also endangered, tree.
Today, there exists 23 grafted plants, though no full trees.
Easter Island, where Sephora toromiro once grew, is a case study in what will happen to humanity if we don’t care for our forests and our natural environment. By the 1800s, nearly all of the island’s forests had been eliminated by humans, and the subsequent social collapse was stunning. Humans obviously weren’t the only ones who suffered.
Sephora toromiro was once commonplace and widespread. It is currently extinct in the wild. But maybe not for much longer.
Today, efforts are being made to reintroduce Sephora toromiro to Easter Island. It is said that all present day toromiro trees, propagated by the scientific project groups working on reintroduction, are derived from the collection of seeds in the 1960s from this single individual tree before it died — though, there is evidence to suggest there may have been a second parent specimen as well.