15 Extinct Plants: Reminiscing the Lost Flora

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 2nd October 2023

When we talk about extinction, most people typically think about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals that lived long ago. 

Yet, Earth’s fauna isn’t the only thing affected by extinction events.

Throughout geologic history, several plants have evolved and disappeared completely—lost to extinction forever. 

Earth’s climate, soil, and even the composition of the air have gone through numerous significant changes. 

When these changes occur, animals are not the only ones affected. 

In fact, many of the major extinction events that have occurred in the past are linked to a breakdown in Earth’s ecosystem, which often begins with the disappearance of the primary source of food in that ecosystem—plants! 

In this article, we’ll list 15 plants that have gone extinct and provide some fascinating details about each of them. 

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15. Cooksonia

Cooksonia restoration | MUSE – Science Museum via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
EraPaleozoic — Silurian to Devonian
ClassificationTracheophytes, Rhyniophytes, Cooksonioidea
HeightLess than 30 centimeters (12 inches)
LocationWorldwide, but especially Britain (Europe)

Cooksonia was a primitive moss-like plant famously regarded as the first plant to develop true vascular tissues. 

These plant veins help with the transportation of water and nutrients around the plant. 

Cooksonia evolved during the Silurian Period and was an important part of the Earth’s flora until it disappeared during the Devonian (between 433 and 393 million years ago). 

The emergence of this plant is considered vital because the development of vascular tissues that could conduct water made it possible for plants to survive outside water. 

The colonization of land by these plants also paved the way for animals to transition from aquatic to terrestrial lifestyle. 

Cooksonia is one of the first land plants ever to evolve and is considered a transitional form between the vascular plants that evolved later and the more primitive non-vascular bryophytes. 

It was a tiny plant that measured just a few centimeters high. 

Scientists are still unsure how this plant produced food since it did not have leaves like modern plants do. 

14. Sigillaria

Sigillaria scutellata | Elenarts108 via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Carboniferous to Permian
ClassificationTracheophytes, Lycophytes, Lycopodiopsida
Height30 meters (98 feet)
LocationEurope, North America, Asia, Africa

Sigillaria lived for about 100 million years during the Paleozoic Era

It evolved during the Carboniferous Period and went extinct towards the end of the Permian Period, about 383 million years ago. 

For a primitive plant, Sigillaria grew very tall, with some individuals growing to a height of up to 30 feet. 

Interestingly, this plant wasn’t woody like modern trees. 

Instead, its base was made up of densely packed leaves. 

Sigillaria also had diamond-shaped scales instead of barks. 

It was a spore-bearing plant, which means it reproduced by spreading out spores contained in cones at the end of its branches. 

Sigillaria had long grasslike leaves that grew directly from the stem. 

It was probably green in color, as scientists have found evidence of photosynthetic tissue on the plant surface. 

13. Lepidodendron

Lepidodendron aculeatum
Lepidodendron aculeatum | Elenarts108 via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Carboniferous
ClassificationLycopodiopsida, Lepidodendrales, Lepidodendraceae
Height50 meters (160 feet) 
LocationEurope, North America

The Lepidodendron was a primitive plant also commonly referred to as the scale tree because of its scale-like bark. 

The diamond-shaped scales are formed by scars left behind by the leaves of the tree when they drop from the trunk. 

Lepidodendron was one of the most abundant plants in the swamp forests of the Carboniferous Period. 

This means most of the Carboniferous coal deposits found around the world today were formed by fossils of this plant. 

Despite not being particularly woody, Lepidodendron was a big plant. 

It grew to an average height of about 50 meters (160 feet) with thick trunks that were up to one meter (3.3 feet) in diameter.

Although commonly referred to as “giant club moss,” this plant isn’t closely related to club mosses. 

The closest living relative to the Lepidodendron is the quillwort. 

12. Calamites

Calamites began in the Devonian and became trees during the Carboniferous Period | CoreyFord via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Carboniferous 
ClassificationPolypodiopsida, Equisetidae, Equisetales
Height40 meters (131 feet)
LocationNorth America, Europe, Asia

Calamites is a primitive relative of modern horsetails, but it was significantly bigger, growing to an average height of up to 40 feet. 

They looked more like pine trees than actual horsetails. 

These plants were part of the understory of the swamp forests of the Carboniferous Period, from 360 to about 300 million years ago.

Calamites had long, bamboo-like stems, needle-shaped leaves, and cones arranged in whorls around the tree trunk. 

Like modern horsetails, the stem of the Calamites plant was hollow and weak, which means the plant could easily fall over without the support of other plants or sediments. 

One of the most unique attributes of this plant was how it reproduced. 

Although they had spores, Calamites could also reproduce using a network of underground rhizomes to clone themselves. 

The Calamites is the first plant in geologic history known to have reproduced this way. 

11. Glossopteris

Glossopteris is the most important of those Pteridosperms (seed plants) who dominated the Permian period which is now extinct | CoreyFord via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Permian
ClassificationGlossopteridales, Glossopteridaceae, Glossopteris
Height30 meters (98 feet)
LocationAustralia, Africa, Asia, Antarctica, South America

Glossopteris was a woody plant that was quite abundant during the Permian Period and was still a major part of the Earth’s flora at the start of the Triassic. 

It is best known for its tongue-shaped leaves with obvious reticulate venation. 

Fossils of these leaves are abundant in deposits from the Permian and Triassic periods

Glossopteris leaves are often found in dense layers, which has prompted speculations that the plant was deciduous (shedding its leaves annually). 

The plant itself grew to an average height of up to 30 meters (98 feet), with trunks that had a soft-wood interior. 

Glossopteris was a seed-bearing plant. 

It was one of the first plants with evidence of well-developed seed and pollen-bearing organs. 

Glossopteris fossils have been found across various continents, including South America, Australia, India, Africa, and Antarctica. 

The widespread distribution of these fossils was one of the first pieces of evidence that these continents were once connected as a single landmass before drifting apart. 

10. Araucarioxylon arizonicum

Prehistoric Araucarioxylon trees lived in the Triassic Era and fossils can be seen in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, USA | CoreyFord via iStock
NameAraucarioxylon arizonicum
Pronunciationah-raw-kair-ee-uh-ZY-lon ah-rih-ZAH-ni-kum
EraMesozoic — Triassic
ClassificationPinophyta, Pinopsida, Araucariales
Height60 meters (200 feet)
LocationUnited States (North America)

Towering at a height of up to 60 meters (200 feet), Araucarioxylon arizonicum was one of the biggest trees in the flat tropical forest that covered parts of North America (particularly present-day Arizona and New Mexico) about 200 million years ago. 

Ancient remnants of this primitive forest can still be seen at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. 

Araucarioxylon arizonicum fossils are often found in the form of petrified wood, also commonly referred to as “rainbow wood” because of their brilliant array of colors. 

In life, Araucarioxylon arizonicum would have looked like a medium-sized version of the giant sequoia tree. 

It had slender, upward-bending branches arranged in circular, evenly spaced clusters along the entire trunk.

It also had thin and “rippled” spines similar to that of modern pines. 

The Norfolk Island pine and other trees in the Araucaria genus are relatives of this tree and are still found in various locations across the world today. 

9. Archaeopteris

Archaeopteris prehistoric tree | Elenarts108 via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Devonian
ClassificationProgymnospermopsida, Archaeopteridales, Archaeopteridaceae
Height24 meters (80 feet) 
LocationNorth America, Europe, Asia

Archaeopteris is one of the most well-known primitive plants, with fossils dating as far back as the Devonian Period, about 385 million years old. 

It is often considered one of the earliest “true” trees to ever evolve. 

Although plants colonized the land several million years before the Archaeopteris evolved, this plant is one of the first plants to develop biomechanical adaptations to support its weight, similar to that of modern wooded trees. 

Archaeopteris was one of the most abundant tree plants in Earth’s forests during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods. 

Despite its similarities with modern trees, the Archaeopteris reproduced through spores instead of seeds. 

Archaeopteris has large, fern-like fronds with fan-shaped leaflets. 

Due to the structure of these leaves, the plant was initially misidentified as a fern, hence the name “ancient fern.” 

8. Wattieza

Wattieza was a genus of prehistoric trees that existed in the mid-Devonian that belonged to the cladoxylopsids | CoreyFord via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Devonian 
ClassificationPteridophyta, Cladoxylopsida, Pseudosporochnales
Height28 meters (91 feet)
LocationNorth America, Europe, Asia

A relative of modern ferns and horsetails, the Wattieza is commonly regarded as the oldest true tree in the fossil record. 

It emerged around the mid-Devonian Period about 385 million years ago. 

Although the root and trunk of this plant were discovered in 1870, the rest of the plant remained unknown for more than a century. 

The crown of this plant was later discovered in 2005 in New York’s Schoharie County, allowing scientists to finally reconstruct the plant’s actual appearance. 

Although it was a big tree (up to 28 meters tall), Wattieza was still quite primitive. 

It had fronds instead of leaves, which gave it a fern-like appearance. 

Wattieza also reproduced using spores instead of seeds like modern tree plants. 

7. Cordaites 

Cordaites are considered the ancestors of conifers | CoreyFord via iStock
EraPaleozoic — Carboniferous 
ClassificationPinopsida, Cordaitales, Cordaitaceae
Height33 meters (108 feet) 
LocationNorth America, Asia, Europe, South America, Australia

Cordaites is an extinct gymnosperm plant alive during the Carboniferous Period (between 323 and 299 million years ago).

It is often considered a close relative of the conifers or even the earliest conifer known from the fossil record.

This plant is often reconstructed as a woody shrub that could grow to an average height of up to 100 feet.

Cordaites grew in both dry land and mangrove swamps formed by brackish water. 

To survive in these mangrove swamps, this plant developed prop roots that grew above the ground surface. 

Cordaites were most common in the floodplains and swamps of Laurussia (Euramerica). 

It was a seed-producing plant. 

The large seed of the Cordaites plant (known as Cordaicarpus (measured up to 10 millimeters and is quite abundant in the fossil record. 

6. Zosterophyllum

Zosterophyllum restoration
Zosterophyllum restoration | MUSE via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0
EraPaloezoic — Devonian
ClassificationPolysporangiophytes, Tracheophytes, Lycophytes
Height50 centimeters (20 inches)
LocationNorth America

Zosterophyllum is one of the oldest vascular plants in the fossil record, with an existence that dates back to the Silurian Period. 

The plant was about 50 centimeters tall with no leaves or any other outgrowth. 

Even when branching occurs, the branch is usually not a distinct outgrowth from the side of the plant as in modern plants. 

Instead, the branch is usually a division of the plant’s original axis. 

Zosterophyllum and other ancient Silurian plants are considered a precursor to more complex vascular plants that would evolve later. 

This primitive plant lived in semi-aquatic environments throughout the Silurian Period. 

Fossils of the Zosterophyllum have been dated to the Late Devonian Period, about 393 million years ago. 

5. Araucaria mirabilis

Araucaria mirabilis
Araucaria mirabilis fossilized branch and cones | Xvazquez via iStock
NameAraucaria mirabilis
Pronunciationcook-SOH-neeah-raw-KAIR–ee-uh mi-RAB-il-is-uh
EraMesozoic — Jurassic
ClassificationPinopsida, Araucariales, Araucariaceae
HeightLess than 30 centimeters (12 inches)
LocationArgentina (South America)

This plant species was once abundant in the forest of Patagonia, Argentina, during the Middle Jurassic Period

Fossils of the Araucaria mirabilis form a major part of the Cerro Cuadrado Petrified Forest in Argentina. 

The forest was buried by a volcanic eruption that occurred 160 million years ago, preserving fossils of the Araucaria mirabilis and other prehistoric plants in silicified form. 

The Araucaria mirabilis tree was up to 100 meters (330 feet tall), with a diameter of about 3.5 meters (11 feet). 

This plant and other relatives in the Araucaria genus were found in forests all over the world during the Jurassic. 

Some experts believe the long neck of the sauropod dinosaurs was an adaptation they developed specifically to feed on the foliage of this tree and other Araucaria trees. 

4. Cycadeoidea

Cycadeoidea gigantea | Elenarts108 via iStock
EraMesozoic – Cretaceous
ClassificationGymnosperms, Bennettitales, Cycadeoidaceae
Height3–3.6 meters (9.8–11.8 feet)

Cycadeoidea was a cycad-like seed plant that lived worldwide during the Cretaceous Period

It was a relatively short plant, with a short barrel-shaped trunk topped by a wide crown of leaves. 

The trunk of the Cycadeoidea plant is the most commonly preserved part of the plant. 

Very little is known about the leaves and other parts of this plant. 

As a primitive seed-producing plant, the Cycadeoidea had well-developed reproductive structures, typically sunken deep within the trunk. 

Each plant had both male and female organs, and they probably relied on self-pollination or insect pollination for seed production. 

The stem was covered by thick scales and a heavy armor of leaf bases.

Despite the superficial resemblance of this plant to the cycads, the reproductive structure of the Cycadeoidea is more similar to that of flowering plants than it is to that of the gymnosperms. 

3. Strychnos electri

Strychnos electri
Strychnos electri trapped in amber | Image via Science X
NameStrychnos electri 
PronunciationSTRIK-nos ee-LEK-tree
EraCenozoic — Tertiary
ClassificationAsterids, Gentianales, Loganiaceae
LocationDominican Republic (North America)

Relatives of the Strychnos electri are still very much around today and are famous for their use in the production of the poison strychnine. 

Strychnos electri was identified from fossils preserved in amber. 

These fossils were collected in 1986, but the plant they contained was only identified as an extinct member of the Strychnos genus in 2015. 

The fossil of the Strychnos electri had been dated back to the mid-Tertiary Period, about 15 to 30 million years ago. 

This makes it the oldest known member of the asterid family of flowering plants. 

The specific name “electri” is from the Greek word for amber, the medium in which the plant was preserved. 

Since it was identified from flowers, the exact nature, size, and characteristics of the Strychnos electri plant are unknown. 

2. Fagopsis longifolia

Fagopsis longifolia
Fagopsis longifolia | NPS/SIP Mariah Slovacek via National Park Service
NameFagopsis longifolia
Pronunciationfah-GOP-sis lon-ji-FOH-lee-uh
EraCenozoic — Paleogene
ClassificationEudicots, Rosids, Fagales
LocationUnited States (North America)

Fagopsis longifolia is one of the most abundant plant fossils identified from North America’s Florissant Formation. 

This rock formation, which is located in present-day Colorado, is famous for its exceptionally preserved plant and insect fossils. 

This 34-million-year-old plant is related to modern beeches and oaks.

It was a flowering plant that produced fruits typically dispersed by wind. 

Fossils of this plant are only known from the Florissant Formation and have not been found anywhere else in the world.

Since only leaves and seed fossils of this plant have been found so far, scientists have been unable to determine the size and appearance of the tree itself.

1. Nesiota elliptica (St. Helena Olive)

Nesiota elliptica
Illustration of Nesiota elliptica | John Charles Meliss via Wikipedia Public Domain
NameNesiota elliptica
Pronunciationneh-see-OH-tuh eh-LIP-ti-kuh
EraCenozoic — Quaternary
ClassificationRosids, Rosales, Rhamnaceae
Height7 meters (22 feet)
LocationSouth Atlantic Ocean

Unlike the other plant species on this list, Saint Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica) went extinct relatively recently. 

The last one in the wild died off in 1994, while the last individual in cultivation was lost in 2003. 

But this flowering plant was rare and elusive long before it became extinct. 

The only population of this plant in the wild was restricted to the South Atlantic Island of Saint Helena, where they grew exclusively at the highest point on the island. 

St. Helena Olive was a small, low-growing tree plant known for its prolific spreading branches. 

The extinction of this plant in the wild has been attributed to deforestation and overgrazing by goats introduced to the Island in the 19th century. 


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