If an animal or plant species is endangered, it means there is a very high risk of extinction. Sadly, there are many endangered tree species that risk being wiped out forever.
What Does “Endangered Tree Species” Mean?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the world’s most detailed and complete inventory of the status of any biological species that currently exist. If a tree is on the endangered species list, it means that it’s only one step away from the status of critically endangered, as categorized by the IUCN Red List. This organization uses a specific set of measures and standards to determine the risk any species (and subspecies) has of becoming extinct.
But regardless of where a species stands on the Red List, most agree that it is imperative that species are protected and conserved. Humans simply don’t understand enough to recognize all of the ecological benefits of every specific species, so when one is lost, there’s no way to measure the full global impact. In fact, trees, especially endangered ones, play a key role in combating climate change and are one of the best solutions for controlling and eliminating carbon emissions that are warming the planet.
What Defines a “Threatened” Species of Plant?
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there are key differences between a species being labeled as “threatened” and “endangered”:
- “Endangered” species are in danger of permanent extinction, whether it concerns a significant portion of the species or the species as a whole.
- “Threatened” species are, unfortunately, on the way to extinction.
Stunningly, there are hundreds of endangered tree species on the Red List. The following species are just a few of the ones in danger.
1. What’s the Rarest Tree in the World? (Pennantia baylisiana)
In 1945, on the Three Kings Islands of New Zealand, the rarest tree in the world, the Pennantia baylisiana, was discovered by the University of Otago’s Professor Geoff Baylis. The Pennantia baylisiana has large, lustrous leaves.
The New Zealand Plant Conservation Network (NZPCN) states that there is only one tree of this species currently alive in the wilderness of New Zealand. Unbelievably, it is the very same plant that Baylis discovered over 75 years ago!1
The NZPCN describes the Pennantia baylisiana as a rare multi-trunked small tree that bears very large, glossy, curled leaves and purple fruits. This endangered tree species is threatened by multiple things, but old age and habitat loss are two of the main aggressors. Experts argue if action is not taken to conserve and protect the environment that surrounds it, the singular Pennantia baylisiana tree will vanish.
2. What Tree Is Going Extinct? The Loneliest Tree in the World (Wood’s cycad)
A tree that once had the monopoly in terms of vegetation during the Jurassic Period (Yes, you read that properly… the period in time when dinosaurs roamed free!) now stands solo in London’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
The Encephalartos woodii, or Wood’s cycad, for short, is known as the loneliest tree in the entire world. In 1895, a British botanist discovered it in the wild. Although the tree is endemic to South Africa, the botanist took a sample of that tree and shipped it to London where it now resides on its own.
The tree is a male, which means a female Encephalartos woodii is required in order for the trees to mate and reproduce, thus saving the species. Unfortunately, all expeditions in search of other Wood’s cycads have been deemed unsuccessful by botanists. Until a female is discovered, the Wood’s cycad will stand solo and strong in London until it succumbs to old age.
David Cook, the Kew Gardens Palm House Supervisor, went in-depth about the discovery of the loneliest tree in the entire world in the following video.
Are Flowers Endangered Too?
There are over 400,000 species of flowers on earth. Some species thrive while others are struggling to do so. The Middlemist’s Red is a species of flower that falls into the latter category. In 1804, it was discovered in China by botanist John Middlemist (As you can tell, many new species are named after the person who discovered it.)
After finding this unique specimen and realizing its population had been decimated by harvesting and deforestation, Middlemist transported the flower from China to England where it currently resides. Although Middlemist sold the flower to the general public upon his return to London, only two Middlemist’s Reds are alive and can be seen today, making it the rarest flower in the world.
One can be found in New Zealand. The second resides in the aforementioned Royal Botanical Gardens in London, where it reportedly survived a bombing during World War II! If that does not show the strength and resilience of this flower, nothing does!2
What Is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species? Officially Tracking Critically Endangered Tree Species and Plants
There are millions of species of animals and plants on earth. Biodiversity is crucial for the survival of all species, so keeping track of the plants and trees that are threatened takes a lot of work. In fact, there is no way for one person or nation to know which tree species is endangered and what animal is on the precipice of extinction without the help of lots of biologists and environmental experts working together to create a giant list.
Fortunately, such a list already exists!
Since 1964, The International Union for Conservation of Nature has compiled comprehensive, up-to-date information about endangered species in the form of a list. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is, “…a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity. Far more than a list of species and their status, it is a powerful tool to inform and catalyze action for biodiversity conservation and policy change, critical to protecting the natural resources we need to survive.”3
If you have yet to take a gander at the extensive Red List, know that it is not like any other. It provides in-depth, verified information about species ranges, population sizes, habitats, trading, imminent threats, and conservation efforts that help shape the decisions made around the world.
The categorizations of the Red List are:
- Data Deficient (DD)
- Least Concern (LC)
- Near Threatened (NT)
- Vulnerable (VU)
- Endangered (EN)
- Critically Endangered (CR)
- Extinct in the Wild (EW)
- Extinct (EX)
What’s on the Tree List?
Knowing the types and species on the endangered list is one of the first steps in helping prevent their annihilation. The following trees are included, with various stages of threats.
3. Quiver Tree
San peoples are native to South Africa. And because they needed weapons for hunting, they found that the branches of the Quiver Tree were hollow enough to be whittled into quivers, hence the name Quiver tree.4
The Quiver tree is native to South Africa and Namibia, and it thrives in these incredibly arid conditions. Like all trees, this endangered tree species provides shelter and food to a myriad of animals and insects. The tree also possesses medicinal properties. The roots of a Quiver can be used to treat ailments as serious as asthma and tuberculosis. Unfortunately, due to high mortality rates caused by climate change, the Quiver tree is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the Red List. It is a great example of how all trees, regardless of their classification on the red list, must be protected.
David Attenborough took a look at the Quiver tree for a BBC Earth program a few years ago in the following video:
4. Brazilian Rosewood
Because of its stunning beauty, wood taken from the cross-section of Brazilian Rosewoods is often used to craft guitars and furniture. In Brazil’s Atlantic Forest (an ecoregion running along the eastern coast of Brazil, and expanding inland into Argentina and Paraguay) exists a tree that Guitarplayer.com contributor Dave Hunter referred to as ‘prized timber.’
Brazilian Rosewood is a highly sought-after tree, largely thanks to its bark (other rosewood trees exist in a number of other countries), which features many rich, deep brown, and oxblood color schemes. The bark is also incredibly strong and resonant, meaning the wood can reinforce or prolong sounds, making it perfect for the construction of musical instruments.
Thanks to the CITES Act (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Brazilian Rosewood has become contractually protected, so instrument manufacturers have turned their eyes to other parts of the world for harvesting. But, Rosewood is sought after for reasons other than its musicality, which has resulted in the current logging of the tree, despite the contractual protection. The tree’s bark holds a high concentration of essential oils that give the tree a sweet, floral scent reminiscent of roses; this ultimately resulted in the illegal harvesting of the tree to be used in cosmetics and fragrances. The oils produced by the tree also have medicinal properties, but Brazilian Rosewoods are categorized as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.
According to Globaltrees.org, “The need for protection of the remaining Brazilian Atlantic Forest has been recognized, and 35.9% now has some form of protected status. Despite the high rate of deforestation, the Atlantic Forest is still considered one of the world’s top five biodiversity hot spots. This status justifies sustained efforts to conserve the forest community and iconic species such as the Brazilian rosewood.”5 This statement solidifies the fact that the protection of all trees, regardless of list status, is crucial for the planet’s survival.
5. Franklin Tree
In 1795, King George III appointed John Bartram as the Royal Botanist for North America. In that same year, Bartram discovered the Franklin tree, thriving alongside the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia.6 The Franklin tree has yet to be discovered as endemic, otherwise known as native, to any other area.
Woefully, since the early 19th century, the tree has been extinct in the wild. Although Franklin trees are rare and expensive to purchase, they can be found as ornamental, decorative assets to American gardens because of their sweet-smelling, white flowers, and their overall symmetrical, pyramidal shape.
In terms of growing one for yourself, the endangered species is infamous for wilting and root rot, both of which make them very hard to grow and maintain. They thrive in gardens with organic, well-drained soil and lots of sunshine!
6. Monkey Puzzle
The bark of a Monkey Puzzle tree is just as spiky as its leaves! The national tree of Chile, (aka Chilean Pine) the Monkey Puzzle tree, is endangered in its native lands. However, thanks to ornamental gardening, the tree exists in the U.S. and Europe, thriving in cooler climates.
Monkey Puzzles take on a pyramidal shape in their youth and are covered in spiky leaves. The bark has been compared to a wrinkled elephant hide due to its gray color and horizontal folds. Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences believes the comment, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb this tree,” is what ultimately named the tree.
Monkey Puzzles are conifers, meaning they produce cones. The cones are edible and they release seeds known as ‘piñones.’ Interestingly, there is no way to know what gender the tree is until it produces cones. According to Oregon State, female cones are ovoid with bright brown seeds and are edible and sold in local Chilean markets. Male cones are more of a cylindrical shape formed in clusters at the end of the tree’s shoots. Monkey Puzzles were categorized as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List in 2013.
7. Dragon Blood
The sap of a Dragon Blood Tree bears a striking resemblance to blood! But, to see this endangered tree species in its natural habitat, you must sail the Arabian sea to get to an island off of the coast of Yemen in the archipelago of Socotra. Dragon Blood trees are known for their blood-red, medicinal sap, which locals use to treat fevers and ulcers, among other ailments. The sap is also used as pigment for cosmetics and as varnish for wood.
These special Evergreen trees have super long life spans… some have lived for over 600 years! According to The Revelator’s John R. Platt, “The tree has long been considered an indicator species, meaning it quickly shows signs of changes to its environment and plays host to a wide range of the island’s other unique wildlife.” This made scientists wonder if the tree could also be categorized as an umbrella species, because the tree may have a direct or indirect impact on the conservation of other species of plants and mammals that live near them.
Sadly, the tree is categorized as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. If the imminent threats of the Dragon Blood tree prevail, such as logging and climate change, it is in extreme danger of extinction.
8. Coffin Tree
In the mountains of Taiwan, Coffin trees can be found sparingly. These conifers feature needle-like protective leaves that mature into scales as the tree reaches ages over 100-years-old. Interestingly, like Monkey Puzzles, they produce edible cones that contain seeds.
Coffin tree timber is highly valued due to its malleability, rich bark color, and spicy smell. Although it is a bit morbid, the tree earned its name from the use of the tree’s wood for coffins. Regrettably, the tree has been harvested and logged to the point of vulnerability.
Why Does It Matter? Deforestation and Climate Change Go Hand in Hand and Trees Are the Superheroes in Combating Climate Change
In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted an experiment to prove it. Rebecca Lindsey explained, “For the experiment, scientists combined land surface and atmospheric models to create two simulated worlds. In one ‘world,’ greenhouse gases, deforestation, and other climate influences were allowed to change much as they did in the real world between the mid-1800s and the present. On the other ‘world,’ everything was identical except that forests and other vegetation were kept as they would have remained, naturally, without human activities. For each world, they ran the simulation twice—tweaking the starting conditions a bit each time to increase the range of possible outcomes—and averaged the results.”
She continued, “The maps show model estimates of the number of years between a location’s hottest and driest summers during the period between 1981 and 2005, taking into account both greenhouse gas increases and forest clearing… Red means shorter return periods (fewer years between extreme summers), gray means no change, and blue means longer return periods (more years between extreme summers).”
The results were clear: Forests play a definitive role in controlling global temperatures.
But, in addition to being the ‘superheroes’ in the fight against climate change and global warming, native species of trees support animal life and other vegetation. By carbon offset tree planting areas that have been cleared, animals that have been displaced to return to their native habitats. Plus, it also encourages compatible vegetation to grow and thrive.
Most importantly, depending on the species, one tree can offset approximately 84 kilograms, or 185.2 U.S. pounds of carbon!
Medicine Trees: Can Trees Really Heal You?
Trees are known not only for their beauty, their carbon sequestering skills, the shelter they provide, or the fruits and seeds they bear… they are also recognized for their natural medicinal remedies!
The Dogwood tree is endemic to southern North America, and according to Wood Magazine, doctors used the bark, roots, and berries of Dogwood trees to treat malaria during the Civil War!
Argan trees can be found in multiple places, but they are especially fond of Morocco and Australia. The tree bark produces Argan oil, which can be used as an anti-inflammatory and an antibacterial. The oil is also used in cosmetic products or food as a source of antioxidants.
North American Sassafras
The roots, bark, and leaves of the North American Sassafras tree are all used by Native Americans to ward off fever, diarrhea, and measles. The tree can also be liquefied and infused into the body as a blood purifier, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Guide!
Learn more about the medicinal properties of trees at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Guide to Common Medicinal Herbs!
What Causes Threatened Tree Species?
Many natural and human-made activities threaten tree species. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO) releases annual reports about the logging industry, and in a recent article about the production of wood products, they have come to the conclusion that the production and trade of timber is at rates higher than they have seen in the last 70 years.7
Trees are also being harvested for the food that they bear and the medicinal properties they possess. As a resource that is renewable, trees are being slashed at an unprecedented and unnecessary rate. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) calculated the amount of land lost every year from beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products; the cattle industry is the top cause of deforestation worldwide.
According to UCS, “Converting forest to pasture for beef cattle, largely in Latin America, is responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year—an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts—in just four countries. This is more than half of the tropical deforestation in South America, and more than five times as much as any other commodity in the region.”
Do Threatened Species Have Any Chance of Survival?
All threatened species have a chance to survive, but that opportunity cannot be squandered. The process of ‘de-extinction,’ or reviving a species from the brink of extinction, has saved many animal and plant species.
- First Step: Get Educated
The IUCN Red List is a great tool to use to keep track of all species that need our help. Conservation efforts are key, whether they are in the form of government legislation to protect the species, replanting the species in their native habitats, or simply spreading the word about the need to protect those species.
- Second Step: Getting Involved
Becoming involved in the fights against deforestation and man-made climate change is easier now than ever before. You can start by using an ecological footprint calculator to figure out the amount of your emission, and then select from the best carbon offset providers to erase your emissions.
Governments, locals and tree planting organizations have been able to revitalize forests worldwide, rebuild habitats, rehabilitate injured, displaced animals, and educate communities about the importance of tree planting and conservation!
Get Started with These Tips
You can do a lot to help endangered tree species, right now!
- Plant a native tree of your own
- Use post-consumer materials
- Spread the word [about] how important it is to protect our planet [including social media and other avenues]
- Lead by example by protecting our planet in any way you can!
On top of all of that, it’s best to get outside, enjoy nature and see what trees have to offer! Many people wonder, “where can I find a redwood forest near me?” Depending on where you live, redwood forests may be closer than you think. Head over to the National Parks Service (NPS) site to plan your nature walk.
If Humans Can Destroy the Earth, They Can Rebuild it Too
Scientists have concluded that our resources will become more and more scarce as we approach the critical climate change tipping point in 2050, but we can make sure that our planet is thriving for future generations… by protecting one tree at a time.
1New Zealand Plant Conservation Network. (2003, 10 01). https://www.nzpcn.org.nz/. Retrieved April 2021, from New Zealand Plant Conservation Network: https://www.nzpcn.org.nz/flora/species/pennantia-baylisiana/
2Clare Florist. (2012, 05 02). Weird and Wonderful Flowers – The Worlds Rarest Flower Middlemist Red. Retrieved April 2021, from clareflorist.co.uk: https://www.clareflorist.co.uk/blog/2012-05-weird-and-wonderful-flowers-the-worlds-rarest-flower-middlemist-red/
3The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (2021, 01 01). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved April 2021, from iucnredlist.org: https://www.iucnredlist.org/
4Global Trees Campaign. (2007, 01 01). Quiver Trees. Retrieved April 2021, from https://globaltrees.org/: https://globaltrees.org/threatened-trees/trees/quiver-tree/
5Global Trees Campaign. (2013). Brazilian Rosewood. Retrieved April 2021, from https://globaltrees.org/: https://globaltrees.org/threatened-trees/trees/brazilian-rosewood/
6Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Franklinia alatamaha. Retrieved April 2021, from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/: http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=q160
7Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2012, 12 19). Global production of wood products posts highest growth in 70 years. Retrieved April 2021, from https://fao.org/: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1256261/icode/