Banking on Diversity: Have you saved a seed lately?
Why do we need seed banks?
As we've already noted, there may be some future need. That need might manifest itself in some form of natural or human-made disaster. Insect plagues, disease, drought, fires, war, climate change, and hybrid seeds (more about this later) are all a threat to the myriad plant varieties with whom we share our world. Saving and replanting seeds from threatened varieties not only protects food crops and rare plants but preserves our biodiversity. Experts predict that, by the end of the 21st Century, fully half of the world's plants will be doomed to extinction.
Seeds, as opposed to live plants, are an expedient and practically failsafe way to preserve gene pools for the long term. They are generally small in size, take up little space, are not difficult to handle, require very little maintenance, and, depending on the variety, may remain viable for long periods of time.
The most famous bank at the moment is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (also known as the "Doomsday Vault"), which opened on Feb. 26, 2008, and is located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen. On that date it also received its first shipment of 100 million seeds, originating from more than 100 different nations. The actual facility is located deep inside an arctic mountain and is designed to survive any disaster, natural or man-made. It collects and organizes samples from seed banks all over the world and functions as a global repository and backup for those banks. All deposits remain the possession of the depositor.
Another important and well-known facility is the Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP), located at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, UK. It was officially opened in November 2000 by Prince Charles. MSBP's long-term goal is to store the seeds of over 24,000 global species of plants. It currently houses the seeds of the country's entire native plant population. The MSBP collaborates with other seed banking organizations all over the world by sharing information and by providing assistance with seed collection. Seeds remain in a bank's country of origin, but the MSBP stores packets of those seeds for backup.
Both the Svalbard Vault and the MSBP are funded by public and corporate donations and by grants and endowments.
A third bank of importance is the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia. Established in 1894, it's the oldest seed bank in the world and the only official seed bank in Russia. Seeds from hundreds of thousands of plant varieties make up its global collection. The bank is named for Nikolai Vavilov, who was one of the first scientists to understand the importance of crop diversity and played a major role in raising awareness of the importance of genetic conservation.What kind of seeds are stored?
The type of seeds stored in a seed bank varies with the mission of each bank. As we've already seen, the MSBP concentrates on the preservation of native plants. This is a particularly vital mission, since it's
How are the seeds collected and stored?
Difficult-to-store seeds may respond better to cryopreservation, or to in-vitro storage. For example, the banana plant doesn't produce seeds, so alternative storage methods are necessary. In-vitro storage means that living plant tissues are stored, rather than seeds. Scientists then place these living tissues in liquid nitrogen--around minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 196 degrees Celsius)--to ensure better long-term storage. Although shelf life varies from crop to crop, eventually all seeds will die. Before this happens, scientists remove seeds from storage and plant them to harvest and re-bank fresh seeds.
Click on the following heirloom flower names, whose photos appear in the composite above, for more information: Larkspur, Golden Marguarite, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Flanders Poppy, Ox Eye Daisy, Rose 'Harison's Yellow'
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Entrance to the vault
Inside the mountain tunnel
Seed Savers Exchange
Iowa, my home state, is also home to two important seed banks. The Seed Savers Exchange, located near Decorah, is by far the most well-known of the two. Founded in 1975, its members have saved and passed on over one million samples of rare/heirloom garden seeds to other gardeners. Heritage Farm, Seed Savers' 23-acre certified organic gardens, is open to visitors during the growing season. Each year 10% of all plant varieties kept in cold storage is planted on a 10-year rotation to renew the seed collection. A link to the Seed Savers website appears in the table at the end of this article.
Gardens, storage facility, and visitors' center
at Seed Savers Exchange
The Amana Heritage Seed Bank, located at Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens in South Amana, is perhaps the smallest seed bank in the U.S. It's mission is to preserve and disseminate six unique vegetable varieties brought to the area by German settlers. They include a radish ('Vielfarbiger Rettich'). a string bean ('Grüne Bohnen'), a Celariac or Root Celery ('Knollecellerie'), a lettuce ('Eiersalaat'), an onion ('Ebenezer Zwiebel'), and a European Black Salsify ('Schwarzwurzel'). A link to the Amana Heritage Seed Bank appears in the table at the end of this article.
A Sampling of Heirloom Vegetables Here at Dave's Garden
---------------------------------Click variety name to view details-----------------------------------
Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, IA: Compartmentalized seed box photo, which also appears on the cover of a book by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy*
Mari Tefre: Svalbard Global Seed Vault photos (including foil seed pouches)
Jill Towle: Seed Savers Exchange photo
Farmerdill: Carrots (both composite photo, left column, and single photo, right column)
Mary Marchi: Corn (both composite photo, left column, and single photo, right column)
Dafalias: Beans (both composite photo, left column, and single photo, right column)
SK Bakker: Tomatoes (both composite photo, left column, and single photo, right column)
Canna 'Australia': Once considered
quite rare; originally from New Zealand
*Ashcroft, Suzanne and Whealy, Kent, Seed to Seed, Decorah, IA: Seed Savers Exchange, 2002.
© Larry Rettig 2009