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Orchids in the mist

Sarah Cody
13 November 2013
Blog team: 
Sarah Cody explores the valuable contribution that visiting researchers to the Millennium Seed Bank make to our understanding of seed behaviour, through the experiences of Ceci and Nelson, two visitors from Brazil who are helping us unravel the mysteries of orchid seeds.

The joys of rural living

Having always worked in the city I have never made learning to drive a priority in my life. So, when I started at the Millennium Seed Bank last June, I was forced to rely on country buses to get into work every day. They are rickety and infrequent but on the plus side, the drivers are always very friendly and each morning I am greeted by the birds, rabbits, squirrels, deer and all the farmyard animals against the stunning backdrop of the Sussex countryside – feeling much like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, albeit on a bus. There are two others who make the journey with me every day: Nelson Barbosa Nachado-Netoand and Ceci Castilho Custódio, a Brazilian couple who took a sabbatical from their busy professorships and moved to the UK with their two children to carry out some of their own research, away from the demands of their students.

Seed collections in action

Being a world class organisation dedicated to conserving the seeds of wild plant species, the Millennium Seed Bank attracts many visiting researchers each year who draw on the knowledge, expertise and technological resources of the seed bank to further their own research objectives and, in so doing, contribute to a greater understanding of seed behaviour. The seeds of the 31,000 or so species that the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has collected and banked so far are not just lying in a cold room collecting dust. Oh no - these seeds are destined for great things! The collections are being used to restore populations of threatened species in the wild, to provide options for the sustainable use of plants by communities, and for research.


Germination test (landscape orientation)
Germination testing

A project close to my heart is the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project which is involved in collecting seeds of the wild relatives of crop plants and making them available to breeders so that the useful traits they contain, such as disease resistance and high yield, can be bred into our crops, thereby improving agricultural efficiency and safeguarding our food security. To make sure these seeds live up to their great expectations, a crucially important part of the work done here at the seed bank is research into the viability of the seed collections, their germination and propagation. In other words, if these valuable seed collections are to remain useful for generations to come, we need to know what conditions the seeds need to stay viable long into the future and, when their moment of glory comes, we need to be able to grow them into living plants.

The commonest orchid in Britain

It wasn’t long before I discovered the reasons why Ceci and Nelson had left their tropical paradise to come and spend 8 months in the decidedly chillier South of England. Each morning, while walking down from the bus stop, Nelson would stop and check on these exquisitely beautiful wild orchids that lined the path to the Millennium Seed Bank building.

Their name is Dactylorhiza fuchsii or common spotted orchid - a white to purple-flecked terrestrial orchid which occurs throughout Europe and as far afield as Mongolia. As the commonest orchid in Britain, they are widespread, growing from alkaline marshes to chalk down-land, even gracing wasteland with their beauty. Like other orchids, the common spotted orchid produces tiny, dust-like seeds which rely on fungal relationships in order to germinate.   

Ceci and Nelson's project

Supported by the Orchid Seed Science for Sustainable Use group, Ceci and Nelson, in their quest to unravel the mysteries of orchid seed behaviour, chose as their subject populations of common spotted orchid dotted throughout Wakehurst. Only a couple of flowers per inflorescence were pollinated, after which the rest of the flowers were pulled off. This was done so that the plant’s resources were maximally allocated towards seed production.  

Within a few weeks, the flowers withered and a brown seed capsule developed. Ceci and Nelson then harvested the matured seeds, kept some in storage and brought some to the lab for their research. Their project currently focuses on how the oils present in orchid seeds influence the length of time they remain viable in cold storage. 

There is a saying in Brazil...

Many a misty morning at the seed bank, Nelson and Ceci would say to me, 'Neblina baixa, sol que racha,' which is Portuguese and translates as, 'Low fog, sun that splits'. It means that if the day starts off foggy you can expect it to be so sunny and hot later on that the fruits of the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) split open releasing their seeds. I didn't have any castor bean fruits on me to put their theory to the test, but this much I can say: A foggy morning always ended in a gloriously sunny day!

Ceci and Nelson leave the seed bank in December and I will miss them when they go. I hope our paths cross again.

- Sarah -

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