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19 Feb

Plant Extinctions are taking place almost three times faster than animals, and human health is threatened as a result.

Plants have, and will continue to, provide the core of major medicines but only a small proportion of organic life has been scientifically investigated for possible health benefits.

Natural and Complimentary therapies have for thousands of years used plants and their extracts to successfully treat a comprehensive range of ailments, conditions and diseases.

But in the past 250 years the planet has lost around 600 plant species – potentially robbing science of new medicines.

The rate of Plant Extinctions is more than two-and-a-half times the number of birds, mammals and amphibians that have become extinct.

Around two species of plant are lost forever each year – although the true figure is likely to be even higher that as plants could be disappearing before they are even discovered.

Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Stockholm University analysed Plant Extinctions worldwide to arrive at the figure.

Species Include the Chile sandalwood, a tree that grew on the Juan Pernandez Islands between Chile and Easter Island and was heavily exploited for its scent.

Another is the St Helena olive. One lone tree survived until 1994 but two others propagated from cuttings succumbed to a termite attack and fungus in 2003.

The research, published in Nature, Ecology & Evolution, found that 571 plants have disappeared in the past 250 years – four times more than thought. In contrast, a total of 217 of bird, mammal and amphibian species are thought to have become extinct over the same period.

Dr Aelys Humphreys of Stockholm University, said: ‘Most people can name a mammal or bird that has become extinct, but few can name an extinct plant. This is the first time we have an overview of what plants have already become extinct, where they have disappeared from, and how quickly this is happening.

‘Many extinct plants were so poorly understood that we do not even know what their exact roles in nature were, or whether they may have been useful for production of future food or medicine.’

The scientists found that extinctions could be happening 500 times faster than the ‘natural’ background rate – normal losses without human intervention.

Many plants have vanished because of changes of land use, which remains a threat to other surviving species. Co-author Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, from Kew, said: “Plants provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, and make up the backbone of the world’s eco-systems – so plant extinction is bad news for all species.’

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