Ten Extremely Rare Seeds on the Brink of Extinction

The Millennium Seed Bank has set out to collect 25 percent of the world’s plant species by 2020—before it is too late

St. Helena boxwood (Mellissia begoniifolia)
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Mulanje Cedar

Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei)
Status: At the brink of extinction, this species of cypress is confined to Mount Mulanje, a 9,852-foot-tall massif in southern Malawi, where only a small stand of the trees survives.
Threats: Mulanje Cedars are known for their sweet- smelling and, more important , termite-resistant timber, which has been used in the construction of door and window frames, as well as local arts and crafts. In 2007, it became illegal to fell the cedars, which typically grow to a height of about 150 feet at altitudes upwards of 6,500 feet. Yet a black market for the wood persists.
Impact: The decline of the species—Malawi’s national tree—is a tough financial blow to Malawi, one of the world’s least-developed countries.

Learn more about Mulanje Cedars at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Three Nerved Alsinidendron

Three Nerved Alsinidendron (Alsinidendron trinerve)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Three Nerved Alsinidendron (Alsinidendron trinerve)
Status: The current population of Three Nerved Alsinidendron consists of less than 50 mature shrubs on just two adjacent peaks in the Waianae Mountains of Oahu, Hawaii. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List classifies the species as critically endangered.
Threats: It is reported that numbers of the flowering plant, part of the carnation family, are dwindling as a result of grazing feral goats and pigs, human disturbance and the spread of Florida prickly blackberry, an aggressive invasive species .

Learn more about Three Nerved Alsinidendrons at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Erica verticillata

Erica verticillata
(SANBI)

Name: Erica verticillata
Status: The shrub, with tubular pink flowers that blossom in the summer, was considered extinct for much of the 20th century. The last wild plant was recorded in 1908, in its native habitat in South Africa’s Cape Peninsula. However, using seeds collected from a single plant discovered in Pretoria, South Africa, in the 1980s, and a few other specimens identified in botanical gardens, the species has been reintroduced to a few sites near Cape Town.
Threats: As the city of Cape Town expands, over 90 percent of the plant’s damp, sandy habitat (called sand fynbos) has been destroyed. The Millennium Seed Bank and its partners are working to restore the remnants of the habitat that are left and to reclaim others.

Learn more about Erica verticillata at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Syrian Bear's Breeches

Syrian bears breeches (Acanthus syriacus)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Syrian bear’s breeches (Acanthus syriacus)
Status: The spiny perennial herb is found in southern Turkey, Syria, Israel and Jordan, but it is endangered in Lebanon. It took four years and multiple trips, from 1998 to 2002, for Millennium Seed Bank scientists to locate a few healthy, seed-bearing plants.
Threats: “Acanthus” comes from the Greek word “akanthos,” meaning spine. Syrian bear’s breeches resemble the spiky stems of pineapples, yet they grow upwards of 20 inches tall. Since the sharp plants can be harmful to curious livestock, Lebanese farmers cut them down before they reach maturity.

Learn more about Syrian bear’s breeches at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Tsodilo Daisy

Tsodilo daisy (Erlangea remifolia)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Tsodilo daisy (Erlangea remifolia)
Status: Only 50 or so plants remain in the Tsodilo Hills of northwest Botswana.
Threats: Each year, thousands of people visit the Tsodilo Hills, a Unesco World Heritage s ite, to see what has been called the “Louvre of the Desert,” over 4,500 rock paintings in a nearly four-square -mile area of rock outcrops in the Kalahari. The San Bushmen, who consider the hills to be sacred, made the paintings of animals, human figures and geometric designs, which date from the Stone Age to the 19th century. Unfortunately, the tourism boom and development has threatened the Tsodilo daisy. When a team from the project visited to collect seeds, they were lucky to spot the purple daisies of a single plant on a rock ledge somewhat removed from tourist traffic.

Yunnan Wild Banana

Yunnan wild banana (Musa itinerans)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Yunnan wild banana (Musa itinerans)
Status: Native to China’s Yunnan province, this wild pink banana is vulnerable, according to the IUCN’s Red List.
Threats: Deforestation is the biggest threat to the species. The mountainous forest habitat of Musa itinerans, a wild relative of the domesticated banana, is being razed for commercial agriculture.
Impact: Asian elephants are losing a staple food source—and we may be too . As far as bananas go, we have put most of our energies into cultivating one variety for consumption, the Cavendish. Yet a fungus has run rampant in that species. Since t he Yunnan wild banana is a close relative to the bananas and plantains we consume, and it has proven to resist common banana diseases, it could be useful in breeding new varieties.
Interesting Side Note: Musa itinerans was the 24,200th species to be stored, a milestone for the seed bank . When the seeds were collected in 2009, it meant that the bank had met its initial goal of conserving 10 percent of the world’s species by 2010.

Learn more about Yunnan wild bananas at the Encyclopedia of Life.

St. Helena Boxwood

St. Helena boxwood (Mellissia begoniifolia)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: St. Helena boxwood (Mellissia begoniifolia)
Status: In the late 1990s, after a century or more of thinking it extinct, conservationists located a few surviving Mellissia begoniifolia on St. Helena, a 50-square-mile island in the South Atlantic. The IUCN listed the species critically endangered in 2003, and by 2010, only one shrub clung to life. That lone survivor has since died, and so the species is considered extinct in the wild. Efforts are being made to cultivate new plants from seeds and reintroduce them to the island.
Threats: Aphids and caterpillars often infest the plants, and mice, rabbits and goats nibble on them. The boxwoods grow between boulders along the coast and often suffer from drought. The rocks can also shift, crushing the plants.

Learn more about St. Helena boxwoods at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Starfruit

Starfruit (Damasonium alisma)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Starfruit (Damasonium alisma)
Status: Once found in several counties of England, the now critically endangered starfruit is limited to just a few sites in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Surrey. It is illegal to pick or intentionally damage the plant.
Threats: The aquatic plant, with white flowers and star-shaped fruits, prefers the edges of muddy ponds, turned up by cattle in the pastures looking for a drink. But development has made this habitat scarce.

Learn more about Starfruits at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Shining Nematolepis

Shining Nematolepis (Nematolepis wilsonii)
(Department of Sustainability and Environment)

Name: Shining Nematolepis (Nematolepis wilsonii)
Status: In February 2009, fires destroyed the last known population of shining nematolepis growing in a forest about 60 miles east of Melbourne. The Victorian Conservation Seedbank of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, a partner of the Millennium Seed Bank, is working to bring the Australian species back from extinction, having planted more than 150 plants grown from banked seeds near the original site.
Threats: There is always the danger that the flowering tree will fall victim to more brush fires. But even before the fires, the species had diminished, in part because of sambar deer, introduced to Australia from southern Asia in the 1860s. Apparently, the tree is just the right texture for the deer to rub against to de-velvet their antlers each spring. In the process, the trees are damaged or killed.

Learn more about Shining Nematolepis at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Pribby

Pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia)
(Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Name: Pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia)
Status: Botanists located pribby—known only by a mention in a field book—on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 2006. A member of the coffee family, the critically endangered species grows in a 6.5-square-mile area.
Threats: Eruptions of Montserrat’s Soufriè re Hills volcano in the mid-1990s obliterated a large portion of the island’s dry forests, where the orange-flowered shrub grows. The still-active volcano is a constant threat. Pribby competes with invasive species for what little habitat is left, and goats and other animals munch on most new growth.