Nine Fascinating Trees Threatened with Extinction
For a lot of people, the words “endangered” and extinct” bring to mind sad stories of vanishing animals, such as the Western Black Rhinoceros and the Japanese River Otter. But of course, extinction isn’t restricted to the animal kingdom, and plants are equally at risk as the planet grows hotter and humans continue to be careless with the environment. Read on to learn about 9 amazing trees that could be gone before you know it — unless we act now.
The Monkey Puzzle tree is an evergreen that’s native to South America. It received its unusual name in the early 1850s when a British man who was unfamiliar with the tree remarked, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that.” The national tree of Chile, the Monkey Puzzle is an ancient species sometimes referred to as a living fossil, and individual specimens can live for up to 1,000 years. However, they’re somewhat slow to reproduce, and don’t produce seeds until 30-40 years of age.
Unfortunately, the slow maturation period is compounded with other problems. The long straight trunks used to be considered ideal for lumber mills, and logging, along with fires and forest clearing, led to an overall decline in the species, which was listed as endangered in 1971. Nevertheless, there is some hope. Efforts are being made to save it, and there are plans to devote up to 10 million acres of land to growing new Monkey Puzzle trees in the next decade.
Photo credit: scott.zona
The African Baobab grows primarily on sub-Saharan savannas and is considered a traditional food plant across the continent. The trees are large and distinctive and can live up to 1,000 years in the right conditions. Due to the unique appearance of both the branches and the fruit, the baobab is commonly referred to as the “dead rat tree,” the “monkey-bread tree,” the “upside-down tree,” and the “cream of tartar tree.” One of the most distinctive features of the species is its fruit, which is filled with a pulp that dries and falls to the ground, resembling chunks of dried bread. The nutrient-rich fruit can be eaten as relish or used to make beverages, and cooking oil can be produced from the seeds.
Unfortunately, it’s this surplus of utility that’s threatening the Baobab. There is a high demand for the fruit, which has led to overpicking. There have been few provisions made for the replenishment of the species, and in many African cities, Baobab seeds are discarded instead of planted. There is also the suggestion that the decline of elephants have detrimentally affected the tree. According to Save the Baobab, “It is believed that in the past the Baobab fruits were widely eaten by large animals, especially elephants. They dispersed seeds and broke the seed dormancy which encouraged regeneration. With elephants now in danger of extinction because of habitat destruction and illegal killing, the natural regeneration of Baobab has been badly affected.”
Photo credit: Yoky
Perhaps the most threatened of all the trees on this list, the Bois Dentelle is native to Mauritius, and only two specimens remain. The small tree, which has lacy, bell-like flowers that bloom in clusters, is native to the island’s cloud forest, which has been heavily damaged by invasive species. Because of this habitat loss, the Bois Dentelle teeters on the verge of extinction.
The tree has no commercial value, so no efforts were made to protect it until the situation became critical. However, the government of Mauritius is finally making an attempt to save the species. One of the two remaining plants was relocated to a government nursery, which is working to cultivate offspring.
Photo credit: Arkive.org/Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury
There are several species of Dragon tree, and some of the smaller ones are frequently used as ornamental plants. Others, however, are vanishing at a rapid rate. There are conflicting reports as to exactly where the Dragon tree originated, but it seems to be native to Egypt, Morocco, Madeira, Cape Verde and some of the Canary Islands. A tall tree with spiky leaves, the Dragon tree is assumed by some biologists to live up to 1,000 years. However, because the tree doesn’t grow in the standard rings, it’s difficult to determine specific trees’ ages. Regardless, the tree has a fascinating history. Some sources say that it was featured in Greek myths, and that the trees sprang up from the blood of a slain dragon. In ancient Rome, the tree’s sap was used in alchemy, and Pliny the Elder suspected the sap originated from the mingling of elephant and dragon blood.
Unfortunately, its future seems less majestic than its past. Goats, rats and rabbits eat seedlings in its native environment, making it difficult to regenerate the population. The Gebel Elba species of the tree in Egypt has been declining for years, and botanists aren’t certain why. The few remaining trees exist in a protected area between Egypt and Sudan, but the protection isn’t likely to last long. A road connecting the two countries was recently built along the protectorate’s borders, which means there will be an influx of traffic and activity in the area. That can’t be good news for the few remaining trees.
Photo credit: Losrealejos.es
St. Helena Gumwood
In 1977, the St. Helena Gumwood became the national tree of the island of St. Helena, but that wasn’t enough to save it. It’s one of 14 threatened species native to the island, partly because it was used as a fuel source during settlement in the 1650s and beyond. A small tree, the St. Helena Gumwood has a crooked trunk and produces clusters of flowers that are accompanied by 5-inch-long, hairy leaves.
Unfortunately, goats on the island ravaged the tree population for more than 150 years. On top of that, in 1991, the trees were attacked by the jacaranda bug, which caused an abundance of black mold growth throughout the population. The trees were devastated, although the introduction of Kenyan ladybugs eventually helped eliminate the jacaranda threat. The good news is that the government of St. Helena has taken action to protect the trees. The Millennium Gumwood Forest Project planted 4,300 trees in a former wasteland, and the trees are finally becoming self-propagating.
Photo credit: Arkive.org/Andrew Darlow
Vietnamese Golden Cypress
The Vietnamese Golden Cypress is a relatively new-to-us tree. It was discovered in 1999 and grows in only 6 miles of habitat, in the karst landscape in the Bat Dai Son mountains of northern Ha Giang Province in Vietnam, along the border with China. There are currently only 560 known specimens in existence. The trees grow up to 50 feet tall, and the stems contain young and mature leaves simultaneously, which is unusual.
Unfortunately, the hard bark of the tree has made it a target for logging and firewood use. Because the Vietnamese Golden Cypress is slow-growing and doesn’t regenerate well in the wild, its population has rapidly declined and it is now considered critically endangered. However, the Global Trees campaign and the Conifer Conservation Centre in northern Vietnam joined forces to establish a nursery to help protect and propagate the species, so there is hope that it will survive.
Photo credit: Arkive.org/Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
The majestic Clanswilliam Cedar can exceed 60 feet in height, and is notable for its fragrant, rot-resistant, beautiful wood. It grows exclusively in the Cederberg Mountains of South Africa, which are located in a very narrow area — this means means the trees exist only in that same small band. In fact, early travelers in the area described the Clanswilliam Cedars as existing in a forest only “24 miles long and two miles wide.”
Unfortunately, the trees were used heavily for lumber needs when European settlers arrived in South Africa. Although harvesting of live trees has been banned for a century, the species still struggles with survival. The Clanswilliam Cedar is heavily susceptible to fire, which has played a role in its decline, and is also slow to mature. According to the Global Trees Campaign, “It takes up to 30 years for a tree to bear seeds, and it seems that the increased frequency of fires means that few saplings live to reproduce before fire kills them. It also appears that the seed bank in the natural stands of mature trees has fallen below a self-sustaining level. A large fire in 1989 destroyed hundreds of trees and is believed to have been particularly significant in the recent failure in cedar regeneration.” Human conservation efforts will be required if this lovely species is to survive.
Photo credit: Sericea
Also known as the Encino of Hinton, the Hinton’s Oak is a small tree that’s notable for the bright red leaves it sports in the spring. The trees are native to Mexico, and considered an important part of the traditional Tejupilco culture. In addition to being used for firewood and tool handles, the Hinton’s Oak is also used in the baking of “las finas” bread. This “fine” bread benefits from the distintive aroma and flavor of the smoke produced by the burning wood.
Decline has been caused not only by these human uses, but also by livestock that eats the saplings. Additionally, the trees are also victims of extreme habitat loss, because land where the trees once grew has been repurposed for construction and production of crops such as maize and coffee. Fortunately, conservation measures are underway, and there’s hope that the Hinton’s Oak will recover.
Photo credit: Arkive.org/Juan Moreiras/Fauna & Flora International
The Alerce is an evergreen that’s native to Chile. The species can live up to 3,600 years, making it the second longest-lived tree species on Earth. Harvesting of the beautiful, reddish-brown wood began more than 500 years ago, and was used in everything from shingles to musical instruments to pencils. Because of this utility, the Alerce has been heavily overforested and humans have played a major role in its decline. It received protected status in the mid-1970s, but that has proved difficult to enforce, and the trees are still subjected to illegal harvesting.
Extreme measures are needed to save this historical treasure. The Global Trees Campaign estimates that the “forests with very old, giant trees growing on fragile sites around the Reloncaví Estuary in the Chilean Andes should be declared a Protected Area…It is also very important to increase the resources of the Chilean Forest Service and to improve the judicial procedure, in order to increase enforcement of the existing legal protection for the tree.” It’s clear that human intervention — both in the terms of conservation and stopping illegal trade — is needed if these trees are going to survive.
Photo credit: Cristian Barahona Miranda
Although these nine species are all at risk, they are by no means the only trees facing the threat of extinction. The good news is that there are many conservancy groups dedicated to the preservation of trees, including the Global Trees Campaign, American Forests and Save the Trees. Hopefully organizations like these will continue to raise awareness and implement preservation measures so that we can all enjoy these biological wonders for years to come.
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