Seeking stories of extinction in museums worldwide, Dolly Jørgensen finds a curated absence at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

It is just an empty pot. The huge orange clay container stands amidst verdant vines, ferns, and lush temperate bushes, but nothing was visibly growing in it. A small black sign in the barren soil labelled it Nesiota elliptica.

A Saint Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica) used to grow in this clay pot with sprig decoration marking it as property of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. At the end of 2003, after battling a fungal infection, the tree died. While the death of a tree is nothing special for botanical gardens like Kew, the death of this tree was different. This was the endling Saint Helena olive, the last of its kind.

The Saint Helena olive, which was in the buckthorn family and unrelated to true olives, was endemic to the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. It grew in the upland cloud forests as a small spreading tree with deep grey foliage and small pinkish blossoms in the summer. But then came the colonizers.

Saint Helena was discovered by Portuguese explorers in the early sixteenth century and the East India Company of Britain established the first permanent settlements on the island in the mid-seventeenth. The island became a regular stopover port for ships needing to replenish supplies on their return voyage from Asia. Slaves labored on the plantations, particularly growing coffee, the seeds of which were first imported in 1733. Forest was cleared by humans, as well as by feral goats, which devoured young tree shoots.

The destruction took its toll on the tree. When Joseph D. Hooker described Nesiota elliptica in the 11th volume of his Icones Plantarum in 1871, it was already quite rare.

“A very few trees now remain, probably not more than twelve or fifteen at the most,” remarked Royal engineer John Charles Melliss in St. Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, Including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology (1875). He had collected the herbarium specimen (K00214561) for Kew, and his wife, Alice Elizabeth Louisa Melliss, executed its botanical illustration for his book. At that time, the last few trees were barely clinging to life on the northern side of the highest mountain, Diana’s Peak.

These soon disappeared. A wild specimen was eventually discovered in 1977, and before it died in 1994, a successful cutting was propagated from it. That single cutting had lived at Kew in the pot that now stands empty. All that remains of Nesiota elliptica is some genetic material stored in the DNA and Tissue Bank at Kew and the soil that once enveloped its roots.

Globally, extinction is happening rapidly—so rapidly that many scientists are saying that we are in a Sixth Mass Extinction event. This biodiversity loss is most acute on islands like Saint Helena, where species evolved for specific niches which have been disrupted by European colonizers and their imports. The Saint Helena olive is not as special as we might think at first.

If you travel the halls of natural history museums, you will commonly encounter the remains of extinction. It is relatively easy to come face-to-face with the passenger pigeon, which in the early 1800s numbered in the billions before a precipitous decline due to market hunting down to zero in 1914, and the thylacine, which was hunted as an agricultural pest by White colonizers on Tasmania and became extinct in 1936. There many other extinction remains on display too, from great auk eggs that look like a Jackson Pollock painting to awkward dodo skeletons to roaring Cape Lions.

Very few natural history museums put extinct, or even endangered, plants on display.

But very few natural history museums put extinct, or even endangered, plants on display. Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris is one of the few who does. In their Hall of Threatened and Extinct Animals, which is the largest dedicated display of extinct and endangered species in the world, a wall of herbarium sheets gives a glimpse into vegetation loss with two specimens labelled as extinct: Violette de Cry (Viola cryana), a violet endemic to limestone outcrops of the Cry region in north-central France, disappeared by 1930, and Fleur de St Louis (Hibiscus liliiflorus), a small hibiscus tree of the Mascarene Islands, which is extinct on Reunion Island (although it is still present as two wild individuals on Rodrigues Island). In all of my research visits to more than 70 natural history museums across the globe, Viola cryana is the only globally extinct plant specimen I encountered on display. The herbarium specimen of the violet—with its four individual plants pasted flat with brown dried stems, tangled thin roots, and pressed flowers faded to a dark ivory color—gives very little indication of how this plant would have appeared in nature. Unlike the animal taxidermy specimens in the room, which are preserved in three dimensional forms and with some semblance of original colors, these sheets capture little of the vibrancy of life.

Perhaps, then, displaying an empty pot in the Kew greenhouse was the most appropriate choice to mark the extinction of the Saint Helena olive. Rather than encountering some brittle leaves on display, an empty pot reminds the visitor that extinction leaves an absence, a hole that will remain unfilled. This is the Saint Helena olive.

Dolly Jørgensen directs the Greenhouse Center for Environmental Humanities at University of Stavanger, Norway and is coeditor of Environmental Humanities.

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