Summary Local floras are being depleted by a host of human activities, including habitat destruction and fragmentation, eutrophication, and the intensification of agriculture. Species with particular ecological demands or life‐history attributes are more prone to extinction than species with a broader niche. We used an old herbarium from the municipality of Küsnacht (Swiss lowlands) as a historical record for comparison with contemporary plant diversity. This comparison revealed that 17% to 28% of all vascular plants that occurred between 1839 and 1915 were extinct by 2003. Species of different habitats and life‐forms had significantly different rates of extinction: wetlands, disturbed sites and meadows lost most species, whereas forests and rocky habitats were least affected; aquatics and annuals were most prone to extinction, geophytes and hemicryptophytes were intermediate, and phanerophytes and chamaephytes were least affected. Species adapted to nutrient‐poor soils suffered highest extinction in all habitats, indicating that eutrophication poses an urgent threat to species diversity. Light and soil moisture requirements also had significant effects on extinction, but the direction of the effect varied by habitat. When species were grouped into IUCN categories of the red list of Switzerland, the rank order of the observed extinction matched the red list assignment. Because many of the remaining species had high estimated extinction probabilities and because extinction is often delayed (extinction debt), a substantial part of the remaining flora of Küsnacht is likely to go extinct in the near future. This will increase the dominance of the common species that already comprise 81% of the local flora. The rates and patterns of extinction in Küsnacht are probably representative of surrounding Swiss lowlands and peri‐urban landscapes in most developed countries. Studies such as ours can serve as a call for action and form a basis for future monitoring of biodiversity.

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