The joy of growing extinct plants

Some plants can no longer survive in the wild, but hand-pollinated seeds allow them to live on in your home patch

There is something fascinatingly weird about us gardeners. For as much as horticulture is all about the therapeutic art of nurturing and caring for plants, it is also often just as much about the feverish need to amass collections of them.

From the 19th-century oligarchs who would send teams of plant hunters to scour the earth for the undiscovered to 21st-century urban flat dwellers like me who will spend hours (and far too much money) on internet auction sites and rare plant markets to track down elusive varieties, this pursuit of rarity seems for many an intrinsic part of what it is to be a gardener. All too often, however, this desire can put pressure on wild populations, as plants are over-collected to fuel this insatiable demand.

There is a solution. If you have this hunger for growing the weird and wonderful, look to plants that are so rare they are actually extinct in the wild.

For those with only a windowsill, things don’t get much better than the Hawaiian palm Brighamia insignis. Its stout, fleshy, silvery sheened trunk is topped with a lush crown of lobed, apple-green leaves, making it look like something out of a sci-fi film. In early summer, mature plants throw out a spray of elegant white, star-shaped flowers with funnel-like throats. Sadly it is this elegance that was part of their undoing. With such long throats to their flowers, they could only be pollinated by a moth that evolved alongside them. When that became extinct, it doomed the plants to relying on humans to propagate them. Fortunately hand-pollinated plants are now sold widely in the houseplant trade, with a percentage of funds going to conserve its native habitat.

For those with a sunny conservatory, angel’s trumpet, or brugmansia, is a dramatic shrub from the high Andes, sending out dozens of sweetly scented hanging trumpets in a range of pastels. All seven species in this genus are thought to be functionally extinct in the wild, as although they are capable of setting viable fruit, the seeds within remain trapped inside a tough husk and undispersed. It is thought this vital ecological service was once carried out by giant sloths, hunted to extinction millennia ago. Fortunately, indigenous people prize these species for religious and ritual use, which has helped keep them going.

Ginkgo is one of the world’s ancient plants, and is happy in a pot.

Finally, for those with garden space, my pick is a ginkgo. Despite being one of the world’s most ancient plants, predating dinosaurs, they are believed to be totally extinct in the wild. The last remaining forest stand of them in their native east Asia, was recently found to not be wild at all, but an ancient plantation tended to by monks. With beautiful fish-tail leaves that turn butter yellow in the autumn, wonderful architectural structure and potential medicinal value (the leaves are used to make a tea believed to enhance memory), you can’t ask for much more. If you don’t have much space, ginkgos make good candidates for pots, which dramatically restrict their growth rate.

Horticulture is the only thing keeping many of these species alive, so by choosing to grow these plants you are playing a direct part in their conservation. It is how to get some of the rarest plants on earth in your collection, in a sustainable way.