This conversation among scientists, artists, humanists, and horticulturists began from the observation that plants are relatively neglected in the rhetoric of extinction. This is surprising, given that plants, through their photosynthetic alchemy, supply the conditions for almost all other forms of life on earth. None of us can opt out of our fundamental dependence on the energy they provide. Yet conservation is focused disproportionately on the charismatic megafauna that themselves are fundamentally reliant—directly or indirectly—on the plants of the ecosystems they inhabit. This obliviousness to plants persists even as historians and cultural critics have become interested in the social, ethical, and emotional aspects of extinction. A recent special issue of a premier journal of environmental history, for instance, calls on historians and scientists to join forces in the study of extinction, yet the editorial does not refer to a single plant.1 Likewise, two important extinction studies published in the last decade contain, among them, a single essay focused on a plant.2

One reason for this relative neglect may be the ubiquity of plants: they constitute approximately four-fifths of all living matter on earth.3 But at a time of accelerated habitat destruction and climate change, the seemingly endless variety of plants is being eroded, resulting in local extirpation and sometimes complete elimination. Scientists and humanists are debating whether we are traversing a new geologic epoch, shaped by the actions of humans: the Anthropocene. But there is no doubt that the impact of human needs or wants is shaping the fortunes of plants. As botanist John Kress and ecologist Gary Krupnick have argued, species useful to humans or adaptable to human-caused disturbance, including domesticated crops and weeds, will emerge as winners. By contrast, species with specialized habitat requirements or narrow distributions, as well as overexploited useful or charismatic plants, or species that are simply obscure and overlooked, will be the losers of the Anthropocene. Adaptability to human ends too often will be the criterion for “surviving … the coming biodiversity bottleneck.”4

What happens when we reflect on extinction through the lens of plants, rather than animals? The recent efflorescence of cultural studies focused on plants is rooted in the theoretical framework of animal studies—and, more broadly, to current critical interest in non-human entities as historical agents. But the question of extinction also highlights how the categories applied to animals may not readily translate to plants. And these differences are most productively accounted for not only in terms of our zoocentrism or the inferior status of plants in many Western philosophical traditions, but in terms of plants’ distinct evolutionary characteristics.

For example, the defining proposition of the Anthropocene is that humans have become geological agents: the evidence of our destructive impact on the Earth’s biota will, the argument goes, be inscribed in the earth’s strata. Yet, while evidence of extinct plants is abundant in the fossil record, largescale plant extinctions coincident with the five mass extinction events of the past are harder to discern. Global plant life was undoubtedly perturbed during times of previous mass extinctions, perhaps with profound consequences, but evidence of wholesale synchronized extinction of major plant lineages is much less clear. The life cycles of plants are attuned to challenging times: their flexibility of growth often imparts resilience, and their seeds and spores can travel or lie dormant for a long time.5

Wrestling across disciplines with extinction in the world of plants reveals it to be a nuanced and contested category, even a historical one. It changes the questions we want to ask: for instance, should we focus on the end point, or invest our care and concern earlier in a plant’s journey to disappearance? What should be the unit of care: the individual, the species, the habitat? An additional complication are species deaths that turn out to be exaggerated; witness the Gasteranthus extinctus, a Lazarus species in Ecuador that was assumed to have gone extinct due to habitat destruction but was found in tiny remnants of the cloud forest.6 Yet, this miraculous reappearance simply means that Gasteranthus has moved from “Extinct” to “Critically Endangered.” Some plants have even secured a reprieve through their relationship with people, such as Ginkgo biloba, whose unique place in plant evolution is matched by its long association with humans, who may have saved it from extinction.7 The resilience of plants is extraordinary, but they are still vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, degradation, and destruction, just like animals.

So is the past—as far as we can discern in the geological record—an adequate guide to what lies ahead? Or does the unprecedented acceleration of processes that used to unfold over centuries or millennia interfere with plants’ ability to evolve, migrate, and survive? Might plants be less resilient to a human-induced sixth mass extinction through the combined forces of habitat destruction, climate change, soil erosion, and the disentangling of mutualistic and other relationships with other organisms? It is undeniable that most species that have ever existed have gone extinct; eliminated most often by what scientists call the “background extinction rate” unfolding inexorably in the deep time of evolution. Yet our moment may be different.

Field images of Gasteranthus extinctus showing distinguishing features, including (A) corolla with inflorescence branches; (B) relatively short peduncles; (C) relatively fewer flowers; and (D) elliptic leaves.

Extinction today, understood as the accelerated end to long evolutionary processes, throws into relief the unsettling and clashing temporalities of our time: the slow violence of pollution and global warming alongside the great acceleration of carbon emissions and the erosion of biodiversity.8 We are witnessing the unprecedented collision of deep time—the time of species evolution and the formation of complex mutualistic and other relationships—with the historical time of human-induced climate change and habitat destruction. Plants are fundamental to our sense of place, and their gradual disappearance not only disrupts the ecosystems on which we rely for survival, but also deeply ingrained forms of spiritual and communal belonging that we mourn. Indigenous communities have borne such losses for centuries; now they are becoming, albeit still unequally and unjustly distributed, a global phenomenon. Local extirpation may be even more painful than extinction; the latter a planetary category that we may hold at arm’s length; the former an intimate assault on our habits and sense of belonging.

The loss of living species also evokes nostalgia for their preserved remnants, imbuing scientific collections with new layers of emotion and significance. Several essays in this issue refer to the herbarium as a practice and a space for thinking through extinction and its opposites: abundance, survival, re-emergence. The herbarium provides fertile ground for such inquiry because of its dual nature as a technology of preservation and (now) an archive of loss. The creation of early herbaria was fueled by an encyclopedic desire to document all plant life, an ambition only partially realized. Yet the urge to collect and preserve, coupled with new technologies of digitization to which the herbarium sheet lends itself extraordinarily well, have resulted in millions of specimens that are finding new uses in tracking biodiversity. At the same time, the varied scale of the herbarium, from the vast collections of the Smithsonian to the intimate collecting of Henry David Thoreau, can feed both grand and local narratives.

Dating to the Triassic, Ginkgo is an ancient lineage, which survives today in part due to a long history of human care and fascination, exemplified by this specimen (671-77*A) in the Larz Anderson Bonsai Collection.

An especially fertile space for thinking through extinction is the botanic garden. A collection of plants with provenance, the botanic garden is the living equivalent of the museum (a locus of encounter and display) and the archive (an organized repository of information). As an institution, the botanic garden has undergone many transformations in its roughly 500-year history: from the physic gardens that accompanied schools of medicine in the early modern period, to the role of botanic gardens as laboratories of imperial botany in the age of empire, to active hubs for contemporary plant science and conservation. The botanic garden is therefore a unique site (humanists would say, a heterotopia or “other place”) where different kinds of knowledge come together; not only science and horticulture, but also the historical and cultural information enshrined in their adjacent collections of economic botany and libraries of botanical publications, fieldnotes, and illustrations.9 The increasing attention to botanic gardens among scholars in the humanities attests to this cultural and historical interest, which also explains one fundamental difference between, say, the botanic garden and the zoological park. Not only are plants a major contributor to our sense of place, but the garden has been a privileged arena in so many cultural traditions where the relationship between nature and culture, humans, and our environment, is constantly negotiated. The botanic garden is, therefore, a site of heightened attention to human-induced extinction and its possible remedies.

For plants on the brink, or even extinct in the wild, the botanic garden is also a place of refuge, a space where continued existence can be secured. Many botanic gardens are also now developing seed banks, leveraging for conservation purposes the inherent ability of many plants to survive environmental hardships as dormant seeds. As is sometimes said, there is no technical reason why any plant species should go extinct, and botanic gardens and seed banks operationalize that idea. But the larger question is whether plants in the safe havens of botanic gardens and seed banks are but the living dead—a fraying evolutionary thread no longer supported by the ecological tapestry of which they were once part.

A further question concerns the moral and ethical bases of establishing priorities for the intensive species care that is ex situ conservation. Different stakeholders are interested in myriad plants for diverse reasons, and in some circumstances the urge to collect, and perhaps protect, may itself be an act of ecological vandalism. Collecting is increasingly regulated at local, national, and international levels, with many benefits but also unintended consequences. The law is a blunt instrument. It used to be said “if you have a rare plant give it away,” but this simple advice, focused on reducing the risk of ex situ extinction, is increasingly thwarted by multiple legal layers that seek to pursue other valid aims, such as enhancing “biosecurity” by reducing the spread of pests and disease, or eliminating the incentives for collecting plants that are valuable, rare, or endangered in the wild.

Extinction is extreme loss, and as such it captures the imagination and provokes strong emotions. Our attempts to understand, and perhaps avert it, must contend with both knowledge and ignorance, presence and absence—and so they may call for, alongside other epistemic encounters, the sensitive and elliptical resources of poetry as a way of knowing and feeling. But perhaps the finality of extinction perversely draws attention away from the more gradual depletion of diversity and the continuing impoverishment of our relations to the natural world. Extinction locks us into a logic of scarcity—as shown in our fixation on the last remaining individuals or our nostalgia for lost species—when instead we might focus on how to nurture emergence and abundance.


1 Germán Vergara and Emily Wakild, “Extinction and Its Interventions in the Americas.” Environmental History, 27:2 (2022):294–307.

2 Caren Landman and Ashley Cunsolo, Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017). Deborah Bird Rose et al, Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (Columbia University Press, 2017).

3 Yinon M. Bar-On et al., “The Biomass Distribution on Earth.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115: 25 (2018):6506–11.

4 Kress, J. and Krupnick, G. 2022. “Lords of the Biosphere: Plant Winners and Losers in the Anthropocene.” Plants, People, Planet 4(4): 350–66, 351.

5 Traverse, A. 1988. “Plant Evolution Dances to a Different Beat.” Historical Biology, 1(4): 277–301.

6 Pitman, N. et al. 2022. “Rediscovery of Gasteranthus extinctus L.E.Skog & L.P.Kvist (Gesneriaceae) at Multiple Sites in Western Ecuador.” PhytoKeys 194: 33–46.

7 Crane, P. 2019. “An Evolutionary and Cultural Biography of Ginkgo.” Plants, People, Planet 1 (1): 32–37.

8 The term “slow violence” is Rob Nixon’s; see his Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011). On the acceleration of human-driven change to the planet’s life systems see John McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016).

9 Foucault, M. 1986. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16(1): 22–27.

Yota Batsaki is executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, where she is co-investigator for the Plant Humanities Initiative, and is a member of Arnoldia’s editorial committee.

Peter Crane is president of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation,

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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