Getting to the root of saving our seeds

2012-10-20 18:24

Amazing tale of Cape protea species.

In 1803 a Dutch merchant, Jan Tierlink, visited Cape Town.

There, he saw a remarkable flowering plant, collected a few seeds and put them in a leather wallet in his satchel to take back to Holland.

At the time England and Holland were at war. On the way home, Tierlink’s ship was captured by English privateers.

He and the crew were taken to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Tierlink was released, but his satchel and the wallet containing the Cape Town seeds remained in storage in the tower for more than 200 years.

A few years ago, the seeds were discovered and sent to a special research facility, where they were successfully germinated.

Those well-travelled little seeds belong to a rare – and nearly extinct – Cape protea species.

Now, thanks to the Millennium Seed Bank, they have a new lease on life.

The Millennium Seed Bank in London’s Kew Gardens is the largest plant conservation project in the world.

The little Cape protea seeds now share space with more than a billion other seeds, stored in well below freezing temperatures in an underground vault.

The seed bank stores only wild plant seeds, which account for 99.6% of the world’s plant species.

Seeds are collected all over the world and sent to the seed bank. Once there, they are scanned for disease, treated, dried and then stored in the vault.

“Seeds can be preserved in this way for thousands of years,” said Millennium Seed Bank CEO Paul Smith.

The facility is state of the art. It has areas for receiving, drying, X-raying, testing, germinating and cooling.

There’s also a greenhouse and a huge public area with windows so that visitors can watch staff and scientists at work inside the seed bank.

The Millennium Seed Bank works closely with South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute to collect and preserve the seeds of South African plant species.

Scientists at the seed bank used knowledge garnered over years of work to germinate the seeds found in Jan Tierlink’s satchel, Smith said.

“Now we have a perfectly healthy plant that we can test for pharmaceutical activities, put into horticulture and reintroduce back into South Africa.
This is the value of collecting and holding seeds for future generations.”

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