Seeding the future? 'Ark' preserves rare, threatened plants

September 10, 2017 by Bob Salsberg

An ordinary-looking freezer in a sturdy cinderblock shed at a suburban Boston botanical garden holds what might be New England's most important seed catalog.

Inside the freezer in Framingham are tightly sealed packages containing an estimated 6 million seeds from hundreds of plant species, bearing obscure or hard-to-pronounce names like potentilla robbinsiana. They are rare varieties of plant life native to the region—in some cases found nowhere else in the world—and are in grave danger of vanishing from the landscape.

The " ark," as it's playfully dubbed by the New England Wild Flower Society, is not unlike Noah's biblical vessel in its quest to preserve from calamity a rich diversity of life. In this case it's not animals marching two by two but vegetation threatened by any number of things, including natural disasters, climate change, unchecked development or simply being trampled afoot by unsuspecting hikers.

The society's 2015 survey of more than 3,500 known plant species determined that 22 percent were rare, in decline, endangered or perhaps already extinct.

"Plants have always been second-class citizens when it comes to conservation," said Bill Brumback, the organization's conservation director who for three decades has supervised the collection and storage of rare seeds in New England. "Animals are much more, shall we say, charismatic. Plants don't get the same protections under the federal endangered species act."

Teams of staffers and volunteers scour some of the region's most remote areas in search of like Jesup's milk-vetch, a species so rare it grows in just three tiny clusters along the Connecticut River.

Once gathered, seeds are first brought to a facility in western Massachusetts and dried to 20 to 30 percent of relative humidity, said Brumback, explaining that the drying process assures that liquid inside cells won't expand and crack when exposed to low temperatures.

The seeds are then brought to Framingham, sealed in foil envelopes and frozen at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), keeping them viable for decades or even centuries, depending on the individual species.

"If we have the seed bank we have the genetic material to restore (the plants) and put them back on the landscape," as a hedge against extinction, said Debbi Edelstein, the society's executive director.

The "ark" is housed in a structure built to withstand many ravages of time. But already some seeds have been pulled from cold storage to help repopulate dying species.

An oft-cited example is potentilla robbinsiana, also known as Robbins' cinquefoil, a small yellow-flowered plant found only near the top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, New England's highest peak. When hiking trails threatened to destroy the plant, the society worked with Appalachian Mountain Club and other groups on a plan that restored Robbins' cinquefoil to the point it no longer was considered an endangered species.

Rare seed programs aren't unique to New England. Similar seed banks exist in several other U.S. locations, including the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California.

Conservation efforts have assumed new urgency as scientists worry about the uncertain impacts of global , Edelstein said. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity , she said, has established an ambitious goal of banking 75 percent of the world's rare seeds by 2020.

In the U.S., private conservation groups are shouldering the burden in part because the U.S. is the only major nation that never ratified the little-known 1992 treaty, though American officials over the years have voiced support for its objectives.

Preserving plant life is a worthy undertaking on many levels, Brumback said. Even the rarest of plants can be vital to ecosystems. Some could yet yield medicines or other products useful to mankind.

"These are species on Earth that deserve to live as much as we do," Brumback said.

He added: "If you lost one plant is the world going to stop? No it's not. But if you lose enough and enough biological diversity, we don't know what the effects are going to be."

Explore further: Report: Diversity of New England plant life is threatened

Related Stories

Report: Diversity of New England plant life is threatened

March 26, 2015

From picturesque coastal estuaries of Cape Cod to the soaring White Mountains, much of New England's rich native flora is fighting for survival against increasing odds, according to what conservationists call the most comprehensive ...

UK botanists bank 10% of world's plant species

October 15, 2009

Botanists at Britain's Kew Gardens have collected seeds from 10 percent of the world's wild plants, their first goal in a long-term project to protect all endangered species, they said Thursday.

Saving seeds the right way can save the world's plants

July 30, 2014

Exotic pests, shrinking ranges and a changing climate threaten some of the world's most rare and ecologically important plants, and so conservationists establish seed collections to save the seeds in banks or botanical gardens ...

Australia's new bush tucker seed bank

April 18, 2016

DEMAND for WA's native plant seeds is increasing for purposes ranging from revegetating former mine sites to high-end restaurants which use Aboriginal food plants in their cuisine.

Birds maintain rare plant species, study finds

November 3, 2016

Outside of human influences, why do rare plant species persist instead of dwindling away to extinction? It's a question that has plagued ecologists for centuries. Now, for the first time, scientists at Penn State and Universidad ...

Recommended for you

The path to success for fish sperm

May 24, 2018

In many animals, males pursue alternative tactics when competing for the fertilization of eggs. Some cichlid fishes from Lake Tanganyika breed in empty snail shells, which may select for extremely divergent mating tactics. ...

Team makes breakthrough in synthetic genome rearrangement

May 24, 2018

A synthetic biology team at Tianjin University (TJU) has reported new methods and strategies for genome rearrangement and accelerated the evolution of yeast strains with their three latest studies published in Nature Communications ...

How human brains became so big

May 23, 2018

The human brain is disproportionately large. And while abundant grey matter confers certain intellectual advantages, sustaining a big brain is costly—consuming a fifth of energy in the human body.

Rehabilitating lactate: From poison to cure

May 23, 2018

George Brooks has been trying to reshape thinking about lactate—in the lab, the clinic and on the training field—for more than 40 years, and finally, it seems, people are listening. Lactate, it's becoming clear, is not ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 11, 2017
Here's an article on seed banks:

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.