Do plants become extinct?

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

12th October 2017


Downy Hemp Nettle

A listener asked on Simon Mayo's Drivetime shown on Radio 2 - here's a bit more detail...

  • Twenty species of plants are currently recognised as being “Extinct” in Britain, having been lost forever. The last species to go extinct in Britain was Downy Hemp-nettle (above), a beautiful large-flowered cornfield flower that grew on a farm outside Bangor in North Wales. It was last seen in 1975, when the cultivated oat and potato fields where it grew were converted to permanent grassland for sheep grazing.
  • Another seven species are known as “Extinct in the wild” meaning that before they disappeared, plants were taken into gardens and still survive there. An example is Interrupted Brome, which last seen in the wild in 1972 in a field in Cambridgeshire. Fortunately, an enterprising botanist collected some seed before it disappeared and grew it in his garden. These seeds have now been used to reintroduce the plant at several sites, including Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm reserve in Kent where 11,000 flowering spikes were counted this year, now the largest population in Britain and a wonderful example of a plant coming back from extinction.
  • Before a plant can be declared extinct, it needs to have been missing in the wild for 25 years. This gives us time to be sure it really has gone – plants can often linger in unexpected corners or reappear unexpectedly. We don’t always get it right. The elusive ghost orchid wasn’t seen for 23 years and the beechwood sites where it once grew had changed in character and were unsuitable. After such a long period of absence we decided it really had gone and declared it to be “Extinct”. The very next year, it reappeared!
  • Sixty-seven species are currently “Critically Endangered” – the most vulnerable species that might go extinct next. Obviously, these attract attention of conservationist to do all we can to stop this, but it can be difficult. One we’re keeping a close eye on is starfruit, an annual of muddy heathland pools. This year the entire British population has been just one plant in one pool.
  • One in five of our flowers are threatened with extinction and many once familiar flowers are disappearing from our landscapes. Flowers like corncockle and cornflower for example were once widespread in cornfields, but are now extremely rare in this habitat thanks to spraying, fertilizing and more intensive cropping.

If you want to get involved with saving some of our rarest wildlife in England, the Back from the Brink project, a partnership of seven wildlife charities funded by the National Lottery, is launching this autumn with the aim of getting a million people involved with a whole range of threatened species and habitats.