What Do These Extinct Plants Smell Like?

A multidisciplinary collaboration resurrects three types of flora lost due to 20th-century colonialism

Hibiscadelphus wilderianus
Resurrecting the Sublime recreates the scent of Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, which went extinct in 1912. Grace Chuang / Ginkgo Bioworks

A flower known as the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock once grew in abundance on the slopes of Maui’s lava fields. But colonial cattle ranching decimated the plant’s Hawaiian habitat, and its last tree died in 1912. A sole surviving specimen is preserved at Harvard University.

Just over a century after the plant species went extinct, multidisciplinary artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, scent researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, and biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks used synthetic biology to recreate the flower’s possible smell. As Rowan Jacobsen reported for Scientific American in 2019, descriptions of the fragrance ranged from “ethereal” to “lightness.”

The hibiscus isn’t the only vanished plant species resurrected by the project. Since its launch in 2016, Resurrecting the Sublime has allowed participants to smell three types of flowers lost due to colonial activity. The immersive installation has traveled around the world, from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and is currently on display at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.

“We built these synthetic versions of each flower’s overall smell,” Ginsberg tells Lisa Melton of Nature Biotechnology. “But of course, they’re not accurate because we don’t know which molecules were actually in the flower, in what quantities, whether the molecules’ function was smell-related, or even if the genes were switched on to produce those molecules.”

To recreate the extinct plants’ scent, the team extracted DNA samples from preserved specimens and sequenced their genetic code. According to Engadget’s Nick Summers, experts then identified DNA sequences that might yield fragrance-producing enzymes known as sesquiterpene synthases and printed molecules with these specific DNA strands. After allowing the molecules to ferment with yeast, the researchers isolated “some tiny, smelly sesquiterpenes” that offered a semblance of the original plants’ scent.

In Resurrecting the Sublime, these recreated fragrances are diffused into the installation’s environment, creating what Surface magazine’s Ryan Waddoups likens to a “giant fish tank where visitors can enter to sniff specimens.”

Speaking with Nature Biotechnology, Ginsberg explains, “What we end up with is a blurry picture of the past, a false yet powerful memory. … Experiencing this creates an emotional, physical connection with the natural world. It is that sense of awe and terror and nature’s fragility in the face of human devastation.”

In addition to the Hawaiian hibiscus, the installation resurrects the Orbexilum stipulatum, a “delicate, citrus-y” scented plant that was last spotted in Kentucky in 1881, per Fast Company’s Katharine Schwab, and the Leucadendron grandiflorum, which originally flourished in Cape Town, South Africa. Also called the Wynberg Conebush, the plant’s habitat was devastated by colonial vineyards; it was last seen in a collector’s garden in London in the early 1800s.

Ginsberg embarked on a similarly themed project following the death of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, in March 2018. For two minutes at a time, the artist brought Sudan—or, at least, a 3-D approximation of him—back to life. The digitally projected artwork concluded with Sudan vanishing abruptly, just as his species has. Titled The Substitute, the installation is housed in the Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection.

“I just was really struck by this paradox that somehow we were getting so excited about the possibility of creating intelligence in whatever form,” Ginsberg told Smithsonian magazine’s Alice George last year. “And yet we completely neglect the life that already exists.”