The Worldwide Plant Crisis is Accelerating

Janet Marinelli trekked more than 13 miles a day along the ocean beaches of Long Island in search of the wild amaranth, a plant everyone assumed had been extinct for 40 years until, out of the blue, news reports started coming in that the plant had reappeared in, of all places, New York. Her feet sinking into the pillows of sand with each step, Marinelli wanted to see the annual plant for herself. Would it be back?

Chris Johns/NGS Image Collection

Stopping every three or four miles for a break, she and a colleague trudged on, until finally noticing something poking out of the sand in a spectacular stretch of Hamptons beach. “It was really one of the biggest thrills of my life,” recalls Marinelli, director of publishing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Yet the thrill was dampened. “It was wild amaranth, but it had just been squashed by a four-wheel-drive vehicle,” Marinelli says. It was an epiphany. Here she was, standing above this little mound of a plant measuring about a foot across, with fleshy red stems and spinach-green leaves clustered at the tips of the branches. And not just any plant, but one whose high-protein family is considered a very important staple crop. Marinelli was looking at a plant that ideally could be used to hybridize with the grain amaranth to produce much bigger grains. Produce better food. Here it was. And it had been flattened. By a car.

“This plant became a symbol to me of our attitude toward nature,” says Marinelli, who recounted her journey to find the seabeach amaranth in her 1998 book, Stalking the Wild Amaranth: Gardening in the Age of Extinction.

A National Crisis

It would be nice if Marinelli’s story were an anomaly. Yet a resounding one in eight plants worldwide is threatened with extinction, according to the 1997 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Plants, representing a 20-year worldwide research effort. That’s one in eight.

In the United States, the outlook is even worse: Nearly one in three plants known to exist is at risk. That’s 29 percent of the nation’s 16,000 known flowers, ferns and conifers at risk of extinction (many of which are not protected under the federal Endangered Species Act). And these are extinctions of known plants. What about plants not yet discovered by scientists?

“The numbers are staggering, not only because they are exceedingly large, but because we are talking about the organisms on which all animal life depends,” says David Brackett, chairman of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “Plants clothe us, feed us and our domestic animals, and provide us with most of our medicines, yet our knowledge of their status is woefully inadequate. This needs to change. We need to invest in botany. We cannot afford to neglect the fate of the world’s plants.”

To Leslie Landrum, the plant crisis is akin to having all of the world’s books that ever will be published in one room, many uncatalogued, “and there’s a fire at one end of the room.” Plants are “disappearing before we even get a chance to figure out what they are,” says Landrum. As curator of Arizona State University’s herbarium, she is helping catalog about 100 new species a year in a state that has reportedly transformed desert into development at a rate of one acre a minute.

© 1995 Steven Foster

Not since the days of the dinosaurs did so many species face extinction so quickly, notes botanist Paul Alan Cox. He contends that several generations from now, geologists will not be able to distinguish such a mass extinction from the effects of an asteroid strike.

“I calculate that we’re losing one plant species every week, globally,” says Cox, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden and a botanist who shared a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 1997. “Talk about pulling rivets out of the lifeboat. They’re flying out like crazy right now.”

It’s interesting to put this in human perspective. For every 1,000 people you see, three are likely to die from the nation’s biggest killer—heart disease. For every three known members of the lily family, however, one is threatened with extinction. Your chances of dying this year are one in 561 if you’re a 25-year-old white man. Your chances of going extinct if you’re a member of the iris family is one in three.

The point is this: Maybe the next plant that goes extinct harbored a cure for heart disease. A quarter of prescription drugs contain some sort of component or synthesis from plants, including aspirin from the willow family, glaucoma-fighting pilo carpine, and cancer-battler Taxol from the Pacific yew. Three out of four members of the yew family are threatened; so are one in eight willows.

“Maybe last year, we lost the cure for Parkinson’s disease; maybe this week, breast cancer. We don’t know. Less than one percent of the world’s plant species have ever been studied for medicine,” says Cox, who comes from a long line of conservationists, including a great-grandfather who founded Arbor Day and a grandfather who founded Utah’s state park system. “Every time a botanist goes into the rainforest and collects 100 different specimens, one, on average, turns out to be new to science.”

Cox speaks frankly, with a clear tone of eagerness, as he’s on the frontlines of the extinction battle. On the island of Samoa, his work resulted in the discovery of a plant derivative, prostatin, that has shown promise in treating AIDS. These days, Cox is at ground zero on the U.S.’ extinction front—Hawaii, home to one-third of the nation’s at-risk plants, 263 of which receive protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. No other state has more.

To work for Cox, one must be a fearless mountain climber. Staffer Steve Pearlman has rappelled down 4,000 feet of treacherous terrain on the Na Pali coast of Kauai. Holding out a watercolor brush while dangling, he hand-pollinates a plant sticking out of the cliff. Then he rappells back with seeds from the Brighamia insignus. Cox says his staffers “just fly across the gardens dangling from a helicopter” to get the job done.

This Indiana Jones-style of botany has become necessary because of the escalating crisis. For one thing, weed killers and insecticides are taking a toll worldwide on bees, moths and butterflies—which traditionally pollinate plants (as do hummingbirds, bats and Pacific flying foxes). A quarter of the nation’s bees have disappeared in the past five years. Some cacti and other plants sit like old maids, waiting for pollinators that will never come. If a human with a paintbrush doesn’t pollinate some plants, extinction is inevitable, botanists claim.

“I would say that over half the plants for which there’s good data are showing reproductive shortfalls due to a lack of pollinators,” says Gary Nabhan, director of conservation and science at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson and co-author of The Forgotten Pollinators. He argues that consumers can help by buying pesticide-free produce, which will encourage more farmers to go the organic route. “If we choose pesticide-free food, we’re treading lightly on the wild plants that grow near agricultural areas.”

The Aliens Are Coming

Robert Devine worries about a different problem—invasive plants, which are often introduced unwittingly by backyard gardeners looking for exotic landscapes. A plant may look like it sits innocuously in the yard, but its seeds can spread in several ways. Winds may disperse them. Perhaps birds will gobble them and drop them elsewhere. “There’s a war on, and most Americans don’t even know it,” contends Devine’s 1998 book, Alien Invasion. From kudzu to hydrilla, “invasive species are destroying our native flora and fauna, transforming our landscape and exacting an enormous toll.”

In Tahiti, a tree native to tropical rainforests was introduced 60 years ago as an ornamental plant. Now, dense stands of Miconia calvescens have spread over the hillsides to overtake 70 percent of Tahiti, according to the IUCN. It also threatens four islands of Hawaii, where the plant was introduced by the horticultural industry about 40 years ago. About 15 percent of exotics in the U.S. cause “severe harm,” according to a 1993 Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report. Meanwhile, weeds around the world spread to squeeze out any weaker natives. “The creation of ‘superweeds’ could force out rare plants and reinforce invasive species problems,” says botanist Bruce Stein, director of scientific publications at The Nature Conservancy.

Still, a bigger threat may be exemplified by the Sexton Mountain mariposa lily, an unassuming flower in southwestern Oregon thought to have been wiped out by a road crew when Interstate 5 was built in the 1960s. Frank Lang took students into the hills for several years in hopes of finding the lily—to no avail. “It just doesn’t seem to exist anymore,” says Lang, now professor emeritus for Southern Oregon University’s biology department.

Mark A. Philbrick/BYU

As with endangered wildlife, “habitat loss is the biggest threat facing plants,” contends Stein. “That threat can be direct destruction—like the conversion to agricultural lands, development, or clear-cutting. But a disruption of natural processes is also a problem. Periodic burning is required by many ecosystems to stay healthy. Smoky the Bear has been very effective in stopping this, and as the brush builds up on forest floors, it crowds plants—sometimes affecting the rare species that used to thrive there.”

No one knows this better than the folks at the Garden of Eden which, you may not have realized, is located in the pine-studded hills west of Tallahassee in the Florida Panhandle. The late and notably eccentric author E.E. Callaway received some fame by convincing a fair number of people that the biblical Eden is there, at the heads of four rivers (like the biblical garden). It is also home to what locals call “gopher wood,” which the bible says Noah used to build his Ark. Today, that gopher wood—the torreya tree, a distant kin to the Pacific yew, producer of cancer-fighting Taxol—is endangered. Numbering in the hundreds, it is a relic of the Ice Age and now is reduced to a confined area.

“It’s been declining for a whole bunch of reasons that are hard to single out,” says Rick Studenmund, director of the Northwest Florida Program of The Nature Conservancy, which owns land in the Panhandle and conducts prescribed burns to try to keep the longleaf-pine and wiregrass ecosystem going. Instead of reseeding, the torreya has been dying. “Then when it dies, it resprouts from its base,” Studenmund says. Even though scientists have studied the tree extensively, he adds that “it’s a mystery how we can make this thing come back.”

Many plants around the world no longer re-seed and remain lone survivors—dubbed “the living dead.” At San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Presidio manzanita is so rare that park officials decline to reveal where the plant is located, though it grows on rare serpentine soil. It is down to one plant in the wild—forming a broad, meandering swath of green. While cuttings have been nursed into 15 other plants, they can’t self-fertilize. In essence, they’re like Dollie the sheep. “They’re all basically clones of the same individual,” says Marc Albert, natural resource management specialist.

Botanist Wendy Strahm, a Switzerland-based IUCN Plants Officer in its Species Survival Programme, sees plenty of “the living dead” on the Indian Ocean’s Mascarene Islands. One palm tree, the Hyophorbe amaricaulis is down to “one lonely individual,” she reports. Strahm fears a cyclone will do it in. More than 200 other species have stopped reproducing, reports the 1999 book Watching, From the Edge of Extinction by Beverly and Stephen Stearns.

Worldwide, “the extinction crisis is very real,” Strahm tells E. “We have an extensive list of species on the brink of extinction, plants we will lose in the next century, unless action is taken now. If we cannot conserve the great majority of plant species that exist on this planet today, it will be us that will be heading for extinction.” She adds, “People rely on plants for our most basic needs. If I were dying from cancer, or AIDS, or the Ebola virus, I would be very interested in having the right treatment, and would not be happy if that treatment had already become extinct.”

So many threats face plants that it is possible to write entire books about them. And people have. Nine in 10 plants are found in no other country, for instance, reducing options to protect them. Meanwhile, rare cacti, orchids and medicinal plants are big in trade and smuggling, Stein reports. Smuggling from Mexico to the U.S. resulted in seizures of 5,070 rare cacti and 2,141 rare orchids between 1992 and 1996, though the pace is declining, according to TRAFFIC North America. Perhaps of most concern is that while plants and animals go extinct at the fastest rate in human history, the human population is expected to rise from about two billion to nine billion in our lifetime. Population activists will mark the Day of Six Billion in October (see cover story this issue).

The outlook isn’t all bad. Around the world, there are botanists rappelling down mountains or otherwise hand-pollinating plants. The Nature Conservancy continues to buy tracts of land to preserve many unique species, while folks like Cox take the Noah’s Ark approach, overseeing botanical gardens where cuttings or seeds are transplanted from the wild and tended like prized babies. Maybe as word spreads, more gardeners will fight invasives by going native. Maybe more farmers will help pollinators by going organic. Just maybe.

But it’s important that no one grows complacent. Remember the one in eight figure on extinction? It’s likely “a very conservative estimate,” says Brackett.