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Kew’s Colin Clubbe (left) works closely with local experts, such as Montserrat forester Calvin Fenton, to locate and protect threatened plants, and is always optimistic that lost plants might turn up in unexplored places

The Gibraltar campion (Silene tomentosa) was considered extinct until a single plant was found in 1994. Seeds were successfully germinated, and the species has been re-established on Gibraltar,

while its seeds are now safely stored in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank

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All over the world, plants are disappearing – and fast. A new Kew study, which hit the headlines this summer, should help to focus minds and guide conservation measures, says science journalist Stephanie Pain

Everyone knows what happened to the dodo: it’s synonymous with extinction, done in by visiting sailors and the egg-eating rats that came with them. But who’s even heard of Thismia americana, let alone its fate? To Kew botanist Rafaël Govaerts, this tiny leafless oddity is to plants what the dodo is to animals – an icon of extinction, a plant that disappeared from right under our noses. The weird and wonderful Thismia, visible only when its flowers peeped above ground, was discovered in Chicago in 1912. Five years later it had vanished, never to be seen again. ‘It was known to be something special,’ Rafaël says. ‘But the city was expanding and they just built on it. They couldn’t stop progress.’

Today, with our planet in the grip of its sixth mass extinction, an estimated one in five plant species are at risk of being lost, threatened mainly by the destruction of natural habitats as ever more land is turned over to agriculture or swallowed up by urban development. For Kew and other organisations working hard to stem the losses, lessons learned from past extinctions will help to guide future efforts. ‘By understanding extinction better we can predict what’s most likely to go extinct and take more effective measures to prevent it,’ says Maria Vorontsova,

a Kew botanist who works in Madagascar, a country whose flora is particularly vulnerable to extinctions.

That’s where Rafaël’s lifelong passion to help save plants from extinction is paying dividends. Rafaël has spent more than 30 years building the most complete picture yet of seed-bearing plants that have vanished in modern times. Scouring every available source, from scientific papers and field reports to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Lists and local lists compiled by local botanists, he’s tallied each recorded extinction – and every plant rediscovered. This summer, a Kew study based on Rafaël’s data achieved the rare feat of propelling plant extinction into the public eye, making the sort of dramatic headlines usually reserved for charismatic birds and mammals. ‘Plant extinctions are happening all over the world and they are happening fast,’ says Aelys Humphreys, an evolutionary biologist at Stockholm University who joined the team during a research trip to Kew. ‘For people living in towns and cities it’s easy to forget. But loss of plant diversity is a very real thing.’

That loss puts us all at risk. Plants provide animals, including us, with food and oxygen, but they also form the infrastructure

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