Plant story - 200 year old seeds spring to life
Against all expectations, seed scientists from Kew's Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, germinated 200 year old seeds discovered in The National Archives. Some of these have now grown into healthy plants.
01 Dec 2009
Jan Teerlink's leather notebook and seeds (Photo:© The National Archives)
Botanists at Kew Gardens are used to planting seeds and letting them grow, but never before has the team been asked to use seeds that date back 200 years. This is just what happened, however, when Roelof van Gelder, a guest researcher from the Royal Dutch Library, found 32 different species of seeds in 40 small packets stored in a red leather-bound notebook within files held at The National Archives at Kew, London. The notebook was inscribed with the name Jan Teerlink.
Jan Teerlink was a Dutch merchant bringing silk and tea from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and China sailing on board the Prussian ship Henriette. The ship stopped off at the Cape of Good Hope on its way back to Europe, where Jan collected some seed.
Soon after, the Henriette was captured by the British navy and Teerlink's possessions, including his notebook, passed to the High Court of Admiralty, and then to the Tower of London. Why he carried the seeds and why he put them between the pages of his notebook are unknown.
Germination was going to be tricky but not impossible once colleagues from Kew's Millennium Seed Bank were called in to help.
The first seeds to germinate belonged to the legume Liparia villosa. Of the 25 seeds Daws planted, 16 sprouted. (©RBG Kew)
"This is a fantastic result," said seed ecologist Matt Daws. "The seed was so old and had been stored in some dubious conditions, including a ship and the Tower of London. We really did not expect to get anything."
Alistair Hanson, an early modern specialist at The National Archives, said "This is an exciting discovery and a testament to the hard work that goes into preserving the files at The National Archives. To be able not only to discover these seeds, but also to germinate them helps to bring history to life – literally. I will be keeping my eye on the seeds' developments over the coming months and years”.
Seeds can be stored for a long time
For Kew's scientists, this project has been of more than historical interest. "According to models of seed survival, even the toughest cereal seeds should have died after so long in such condition", says Matt."If seed can survive that long in poor conditions, then that's good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions."
The seeds were carbon-dated by the Millennium Seed Bank's science team to verify their age and Matt's colleagues are now extracting DNA from live and dead seeds to complete the study.
This is almost certainly a species of Leucospermum, of the Proteaceae family. Just one out of eight seeds of this species germinated. (Photo © RBG Kew)
The Cape region of South Africa – where the seeds started their tumultuous history – is a ‘Mediterranean' environment with cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Fires are a regular feature to this environment and for many species either the heat from the fire or chemicals in the smoke are important signals that ‘tell' seeds that they are in a suitable site for germination, i.e. all the existing, competing vegetation is gone.
To germinate the seeds, scientists at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank tried to simulate their native conditions by ‘chipping' the seed coats of the species that respond to heat – this allows the seeds to take up water and germinate. For the other species they applied a ‘smoke' treatment, which was provided by Dr. Neville Brown from Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, Cape Town . Smoke is bubbled through water that is then used as a germination treatment. Seeds were also germinated at comparatively cool temperatures to simulate the winter conditions that cause the seeds to naturally germinate.
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