In 2016, scientists estimated that there are over 391,000 different species of plants on Earth, and more are being discovered every year. In 2015, over 2,000 new species of plants were discovered. Even so, an estimated 21% of plant species are at risk of extinction due to invasive species, disease and climate change.
Plants are absolutely vital to life on Earth. They provide us with medicine, food, fuel and oxygen. We couldn’t survive without oxygen and 100% of the oxygen on Earth comes from plants. Plants also help regulate the climate and water cycle.
So, if all plants were to vanish, so would we. Let’s all hope that doesn’t happen and while you’re at it, read on to learn about 5 extraordinary plants that are now extinct.
1. Cooksonia, coastal areas around the world
Cooksonia is thought to be the one of the first plants on the planet. It lived over 425 million years ago! They were water-loving plants that lived along coastlines and may have actually been submerged underwater. The plants were small and, scientists believe, they were the first plants to have a stem.
The stems were bifurcated and each ended in a small, round sporangia where the spores of the plant formed. Unlike most of the plants on Earth today, Cooksonia had no leaves and no roots, so it’s a mystery as to how they managed to affix to the soil. One theory is that the plants had rhizomes that did not fossilize.
2. Silphium, Libya
Silphium grew along the coastline of present day Libya until the 1st Century BC. In 630 BC, Greeks had a colony there called Cyrene. Cyrene became a prosperous colony mainly due to the Silphium trade. Why was this plant so popular at the time? Well, North Carolina State University historian, Dr. John Riddle has a theory. He believes that Romans and Greeks used Silphium as a form of birth control to keep their populations low. Other experts believe that the populations were low due to high infant mortality and wars.
But, Dr. Riddle observed that the largest decreases in population happened in times of peace. Some ancient writings also suggest that Silphium was used as a contraceptive.
Whatever its use, its popularity is what ultimately lead to its extinction by the 1st Century BC. Legend has it that Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, gave the last stalk of the plant to Emperor Nero who promptly ate it!
3. Araucarioxylon arizonicum, United States
If you’ve ever been to the Petrified Forest National Park in Northeastern Arizona, you have seen the petrified remains of this extinct species. It was an ancient tree that once grew in large, dense forests all over this area of Arizona. The trees were an incredible 197 feet tall and had a trunk that was 10 feet in circumference.
The native Navajos thought the stone tree remnants were the bones of a giant that had been killed by their ancestor warriors. The Piute, however, believed they were arrows shot to Earth by their thunder god, Shinauav. But, in reality, this once lush forest was covered in lava and ash from a nearby volcano eruption, which destroyed the forests and preserved the trees in stone.
A national park was created in the area in 1962, but that still doesn’t stop people from taking pieces of petrified wood. An estimated 13 tons of petrified wood is taken by tourists every year. Which is a good time to remind everyone to, “take only pictures, leave only footprints!”
4. The Franklin Tree, United States
Named after Benjamin Franklin, the Franklin Tree was once only found in Georgia and only along the Alatamaha River. It was discovered by John Bartram in 1765. This unique tree grows 20 feet tall and produces fragrant, white flowers from Summer until late fall when its leaves turn red, orange and pink.
When John Bartram returned to the area again in the 1770s, he found just a few specimens remained on a small piece of land along the river. By 1803, the tree had disappeared from the landscape. Nobody is sure why the tree disappeared. Some believe that pathogens from the cotton plantations was carried along the river and into the soil, killing the trees.
Thankfully, Bartram saved some seeds and took them to Philadelphia where he was able to grow several of the trees there. The tree has been successfully grown in the eastern United States and all are from the seeds Bartram had the foresight to save. Recently, a few Franklin Trees were again planted in their native soil along the Alatamaha River, where they will hopefully take root and grow again.
5. Toromiro Tree, Easter Island
Easter Island is a remote island that sits about 2,200 miles from South America. It’s most famous for the 900 Moai statues that were built by natives on the island in the 13th century. The island was once a lush, forested island, until the first inhabitants began cutting down the trees, so much so, that by the 18th century, the island’s civilization declined dramatically.
Europeans’ arrival on the island didn’t help the problem. They brought sheep and cut down even more trees to make way for agriculture. This caused the topsoil to erode so much that only about 8% of the current plant species is native to the island.
The Toromiro Tree was a victim of the deforestation and erosion on the island. Even though it’s the island’s national tree, it is extinct in the area. Luckily, some seeds were saved and the tree can be seen in several botanical gardens in Europe. Attempts to grow the tree in its native habitat have been unsuccessful.