Herbarium of Extinction

Liz Orton

2014 - Ongoing

London, England, United Kingdom

Herbarium of Extinction is about my search for the Ghost Orchid, a critically endangered plant that hasn’t been seen in the UK since 2009. This search takes in archival images, conservation objects and photographs of plant activists.

According to botanists, today’s extinction crisis is partly a problem of plant blindness. We don’t see or know plants in the way we see and know animals, and they are going extinct at 500 times the ‘natural rate’.

This project started in 2012 when I began researching images of extinct and critically endangered plant species at Kew Herbarium, categories that cut across the archive, which is organized by species. For the past two years I have also searched in vain for the Ghost Orchid, a shy flowering plant is feared extinct.

I have erased all the taxonomic data from Kew's scanned images - names, dates, places and collector notes – and in a further act of digitization re-present the specimens in a computer-generated space.  This gesture of erasure echoes the invisible stories of slow violence behind the images, and the resulting images become ghostly, like fossils.  

The project seeks to open up a subjective space through which we can understand and connect to global catastrophic events.  It brings together two parallel visual systems of environmental thought.

In the UK, our most biodiverse habitats are not in remote rural areas but in suburban sites and roadsides. This work is made in winter in urban green spaces.

Extinctions are rarely directly observed, and establishing the definitive loss of a species can be difficult.  Scientific knowledge about plant extinctions is unstable and partial as lost species can reappear, and it is impossible to monitor all plant life.  The specimens in this project are from all over the world, some as old as 160 years old.

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  • Diplazium laffanianum
    1985, Bermuda. Extinct in the wild.

  • Streptocarpus burttianus,
    1990, Tanzania. Nguru Mountains in Morogoro District. Critically endangered.

  • Dypsis pervillei
    1984, Madagascar. Critically endangered. Only 7 mature individuals left.

  • Philodendron williamsii
    1870, Brazil.
    Bahia. Vulnerable.

  • Aloe pembana
    1995, Tanzania. Pemba, Misali Island. Critically endangered. Decreasing population.

  • Arabis fructicosa, 1867, Montana, USA. Extinct/extinct in the wild (Redlist 1997).

  • Mystacidium nguruense, 1989, Tanzania. Morogoro District, Nguru Mountains. Critically endangered.

  • Brugmansia suaveolens
    1874, Brazil. Rio de Janiero. Extinct in the wild.

  • Myosotis petiolata, about 1866, New Zealand. Rare/extinct?

  • Delissea niihauensis
    Undated, Hawaii. Niihau. Extinct.

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