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7 extinct plants in the UK and rarest plants to save

In the UK we have thousands of plant species that make all kinds of habitats their home. They make our countryside and wild spaces diverse and beautiful whilst also providing an essential role in food webs and as habitats for other species. However, our wonderful plants have been suffering and some populations have been in a state of decline. This has been due to various reasons, including urban development on rare habitats through to intensified farming methods. Some of our plant species in the UK have even become extinct.

These seven plants, taken from the vascular plant red list for England unless otherwise stated, are either already extinct or desperately need our attention to save them. 

Lamb-succory (Photo: Christian Fischer/Wikimedia)
Lamb-succory (Photo: Christian Fischer/Wikimedia)

1. Lamb-succory

(Arnoseris minima)

Status: extinct in the UK

This is an annual species that was common to woodland rides, cornfields and fallow ground. It was most often found in lowland areas or areas with acidic and sandy soils. In 1953 it was only found in 12 locations across the UK.

It was introduced to Suffolk, but the attempt was unsuccessful and due to the increased use of herbicides and fertilisers, the species has not been recorded since 1971.

2. Downy hemp-nettle

(Galeopsis segetum)

Status: extinct in the UK

This annual species has previously been described as a beautiful large cornfield flower. Commonly found in lowland areas and formerly established in some farmland near Bangor, it only appeared annually. However, the last time this species was seen was in 1975, when the field that was previously used to grow oats and potatoes was converted to permanent sheep grazing. It is now considered extinct in the UK and the population is unknown in many other European countries.

Downy hemp-nettle (Photo: H Zell/Wikimedia)
Downy hemp-nettle (Photo: H Zell/Wikimedia)

3. Davall's sedge

(Carex davalliana)

Status: extinct in the UK

This sedge plant was only recorded in the UK in a calcareous mire near Bath in Somerset, but there has been no trace of the plant here since 1852. It’s believed this is because the mire was drained and built upon. It is common in Europe, especially Switzerland.

Davall's sedge (Photo: Hermann Schachner/Wikimedia)
Davall's sedge (Photo: Hermann Schachner/Wikimedia)
Ghost orchid (Photo: blickwinkel/Alamy)
Ghost orchid (Photo: blickwinkel/Alamy)

4. Ghost orchid

(Epipogium aphyllum)

Status: critically endangered

This is a particularly rare and beautiful woodland orchid that doesn’t use sunlight to produce food, instead relying on a special kind of fungi.

It is found in shaded woodland confined to deep, moist leaf litter and emerges above ground only to flower and set seed.

It was declared extinct in the UK in 2005, but was rediscovered at a single site in 2009. Due to its elusive behaviour this species could be in other areas of the UK but it is certainly a very rare plant.

Wood calamint (Photo: FLPA/Alamy)
Wood calamint (Photo: FLPA/Alamy)

5. Wood calamint

(Clinopodium menthifolium)

Status: critically endangered (Vascular plant red data list for Great Britain)

Wood calamint is a perennial herb named after its minty scent, commonly found at the edges of woodland or scrubland overlying chalky soils.

Only a small number of patches could be found in the UK by the 1950s, but conservation work has prevented further loss.

The plant remains rare in the UK and is only really found in a patch bordering some woodland on the Isle of Wight.

Crested cow-wheat (Photo: Frank Teigler/Alamy)
Crested cow-wheat (Photo: Frank Teigler/Alamy)

6. Crested cow-wheat

(Melampyrum cristatum)

Status: vulnerable (Vascular plant red data list for Great Britain)

This brightly coloured woodland annual herb is far more than just good looks. This particular woodland flower is semi-parasitic, topping up its resources from many host plants as well as using wood ants to disperse its seeds by mimicking the ant’s cocoon.

It’s likely to be found on woodland rides, road verges and in the bases of hedges. It was once a widespread woodland flower as coppicing of woods allowed the herb to thrive, but it has dramatically declined since the cessation of coppicing. 

7. Red helleborine

(Cephalanthera rubra

Status: critically endangered

This is another orchid species rare in the UK with only a localised population in the south of England, although it is more common in other areas of Europe. It prefers shaded broadleaved woods and is identifiable by its slender wavy stems with long narrow grey-green leaves. Each specimen can carry 7 or more flowers that have a pink colour.

Red helleborine (Photo: O Pichard/Wikimedia)
Red helleborine (Photo: O Pichard/Wikimedia)

It is so important that we all work towards saving the rare and beautiful plants we have left so that they do not become extinct too. Creating, protecting and restoring their woodland habitats is crucial. One simple way you can really help is by becoming a member. Helping to support our work will enable future generations to enjoy the wild and varied countryside we see in the UK today.

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