10 Tenuous Plants

Peter B. Kaplan/The National Audubon Society Collection/PR

African Violet
Location: Kenya and Tanzania
Claim to Fame: Common, fuzzy-blooming houseplant.
Problem: Saving the highly-threatened wild versions requires establishing protected forests and conserving them the Noah’s Ark way. That is, by taking a few to grow in protective gardens.

Coral Plant
Location: Chile
Claim to Fame: The Mapuche Indians of mountainous central Chile weave baskets from the pliable stems of the plant, found only in their local forests.
Problem: Only a few populations of the plant remain due to encroaching deforestation by commercial loggers and farmers. Botanists are saving selected plants by moving them to Britain.

Wild Coffee
Location: Mascarene Islands
Claim to Fame: Locals believe it treats everything from venereal disease to hangovers, though claims are unproven.
Problem: Only one wild plant remains. It’s on the side of the road on an Indian Ocean island called Rodrigues and is protected by four fences. Yet, locals looking for a quick cure continually manage to snip cuttings from it. While she has taken two small cuttings herself to grow the one successful protected coffee plant under study, Switzerland-based World Conservation Union botanist Wendy Strahm says, “Whether this is saving the species is very debatable,” as each succeeding plant will have identical genes.

Nightblooming Cereus Cactus
Location: Arizona
Claim to Fame: Its roots may have value in controlling diabetes.
Problem: This fragrant cactus relies on moths for pollination. But because farmers kill moths to protect their crops, fewer than 150 plants likely remain.

Scrub Plum
Location: Florida
Claim to Fame: It grows on arid land, and so may unlock the secrets to raising marketable plums under inhospitable conditions.
Problem: Development. It’s found only on the Lake Wales Ridge in an untouristy, poorer section of central Florida that’s undergoing rapid change.

Prunus Africana
Location: The mountains of Madagascar and Africa
Claim to Fame: Bark extracts are used to treat prostate conditions worldwide.
Problem: As many as 4,900 tons of bark from these wild trees have been exported annually to Europe for medicinal use. The plant is now limited to rapidly shrinking “islands” in mountain forests.

Slender Oak
Location: Texas
Claim to Fame: Down to one isolated population.
Problem: A nearby campground and occasional drought threaten this tree, found only in riparian oak woodland in the Chisos Mountains.

Clermontia Peleana
Location: Hawaii
Claim to Fame: Only a few remain on the rainforest slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
Problem: Illegally grown marijuana (not to mention wild pigs and rats) damage its habitat.

Location: Brazil’s Atlantic Coastal forest
Claim to Fame: Locals traditionally turn the sour, lemony fruit into jam, jelly and liqueurs, and use it to fight fever.
Problem: Although it shares its name with a neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the tree is almost extinct near that megalopolis, with only a smattering of cultivated trees found in Brazilian parks and gardens. In all, two-fifths of the species “are possibly extinct or could be near extinction,” reports Arizona State University botanist Leslie R. Landrum.

Lundy Cabbage
Location: Lundy Island in Britain’s Bristol Channel
Claim to Fame: So few exist that researchers are able to photographically monitor every plant in the wild.
Problem: Rhododendron may seem like a lovely landscape plant in other contexts, but it has invaded so much of the cabbage’s turf that rock climbers have resorted to scaling down cliffs to cut back the pesky greenery. The rare cabbage grows only on the genetically-isolated, three-mile-long island.