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Millennium Seed Bank blog

Welcome to the Millennium Seed Bank blog. There is a lot going on behind the scenes at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) - not only here at Wakehurst but also with our partners all over the globe. We will be blogging about our seed collecting trips, local events, research projects and discoveries as well as everyday goings on.

We currently have seeds from more than 30,000 species of wild plants in long term storage and continue to receive seed collections from all over the world. It is an amazing place to work and we hope to share our passion for seed conservation with you via our blogs. 

Find out more about Kew's MSB | Adopt a seed for £25 or save a species outright

Seeds from a lost world - the Texas mountain laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum)

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 02 Apr 2012
In the second of his ‘Seed of the Month’ series, Wolfgang examines the mystery of why this dull-looking, nut-like fruit contains flashy red seeds.
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Despite carrying the responsibility for the survival of a species, some fruits and seeds don’t seem to function in their current natural environment. How can this be when evolution through natural selection has shaped them over millions of years? The answer is like something from an Arthur Conan Doyle novel...

Seed of the Month - Dermatophyllum secundiflorum

The hard-nosed scientists among you might have found my last blog on why the seeds of Ravenala madagascariensis are blue already somewhat hair-raising, given that there is no published direct scientific evidence, yet, to back up my story. Well, here comes another daring observation and the hard-evidence junkies among you had better fasten your seat belts.

MSB - Sophora secundiflora

Texas mountain laurel flowers (Photo by Betty Alex)

Boring fruits, flashy seeds

The Texas mountain laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum, until recently called Sophora secundiflora or Calia secundiflora), is a shrub from the southwestern United States and Mexico. It has some rather boring looking, large brown fibrous-woody fruits (‘pods’) that neither get eaten by any creature nor ever open to release their seeds, and yet, they contain extremely hard, beautiful shiny red seeds which seem perfectly adapted to attract birds for dispersal, if only the birds could get to see them. It’s a fact of life that fruits must ‘make sense’ within their evolutionary background (i.e. achieve the dispersal of their seeds in their co-adapted environment), otherwise they would not exist. Therefore, I conclude that the indehiscent fruits (meaning the fruits do not split open) of the Texas mountain laurel are typical ‘megafauna’ fruits, i.e. fruits that are adapted for dispersal by large (greater than 50 kg) mammals.

Image: Fruits of the Texas mountain laurel

Fruits of the Texas mountain laurel (Photo by Wolfgang Stuppy)

To the taste of big beasts

The biggest terrestrial animals alive today are the elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and giraffe. It is therefore no coincidence that the megafauna dispersal syndrome is best expressed in Africa and Asia where these animals still occur. In fact, ruminants such as giraffes and antelopes and non-ruminants such as elephants and rhinos are among the most important seed dispersers in the African savannah.

The fruits of many legumes are specifically adapted to attract these animals in that they are large, indehiscent, with a brown, leathery husk and often with a distinct smell that attracts even cattle. Since herbivores (plant eaters) are colour-blind, the brown fruits are visually inconspicuous but rich in digestible carbohydrates and protein; they contain extremely hard, smooth seeds that can withstand the grinding of strong molars. The fruits can remain on the tree but are often dropped to the ground as soon as they are ripe to provide easy access for their large terrestrial dispersers.

Image: Seeds and a fruit pod

Seeds of the Texas mountain laurel (Photo by Wolfgang Stuppy)


This description pretty much matches the fruits of the Texas mountain laurel which happens to also be a legume. The only problem is that North America hasn’t really got much of a megafauna other than, for example, the native pronghorn and introduced cattle and horses.

Image: Pronghorn in Texas

Pronghorn in Texas (Photo by Wolfgang Stuppy)

Seeds from a lost world

However, until 13,000 years ago, towards the end of the Pleistocene epoch (1.8 million to 11,550 years ago) when the last Ice Age drew to a close, North America boasted a megafauna far richer than Africa’s today. The ancient menagerie of potential megafauna seed dispersers featured several species of native wild horses, camels and tapirs alongside fantastic creatures such as gomphotheres (four-tusked elephant-like creatures), mastodons and woolly mammoths weighing up to ten tons, giant ground sloths, the largest the size of a modern elephant, glyptodonts (giant armadillo-relatives the size of a small car), giant short-faced bears nearly twice the size of a grizzly, giant bisons, giant peccaries, giant beavers and giant tortoises. By the way, the pronghorn is a relic of this ancient megafauna.

Image: ElephantImage: giraffe

'Megafauna' (Photos by Wolfgang Stuppy)

 
Returning to the fruits of the Texas Mountain Laurel, having no takers among the animals around today, I suggest that they are adapted to be eaten by one or several members of North America’s extinct megafauna. The rock-hard, shiny red seeds then stuck out from these animals’ dung piles where birds could spot them.

Looks juicy but.....

MSB - Sophora secundiflora seeds EW

Red seeds of the Texas mountain laurel (Photo by Ellen Woods)

This is somewhat unsavoury, but mistaking them for something like a juicy red berry, at least some inexperienced birds would be tempted to pick up the seeds and fly away with them to a safer place (e.g. a tree branch) where they would try to eat them. However, the hard red seed coat is just a con, mimicking something fleshy and edible. The frustrated birds would then simply discard the seeds – dispersal achieved!

Nowadays, with their co-adapted dispersers long gone, the fruits of the Texas mountain laurel only reveal their seeds after the fruit wall has rotted away on the ground where the seeds might then be spotted by ground-dwelling birds like turkeys. Native Americans probably helped with the dispersal of the seeds, too, using them as beads and, although all parts of the plant are poisonous, as a hallucinogenic drug before they discovered the peyote.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Michael Eason (Alpine, Texas) for sharing his first-hand knowledge about the Texas mountain laurel and to Betty Alex (Terlingua, Texas) for contributing the image of a flowering specimen.

- Wolfgang -
 


 

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Swapping seeds in the name of food diversity

By: Vanessa Sutcliffe - 21 Mar 2012
Join Vanessa Sutcliffe, Millennium Seed Bank Training Specialist, as she gets ready to organise the next Great Seed Swap taking place at Wakehurst on Saturday 20 October 2012.
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It’s early days yet, but not too soon to start planning this year’s Great Seed Swap event at Wakehurst. Our inaugural seed swap was held in September last year and was a great success. As well as hosting a talk by the inspiring James Wong on little-used vegetable varieties, and a Gardener’s Question Time session led by Matthew Biggs, we had demonstrations and tours given by our experts at Wakehurst.

James Wong and Matthew Biggs at the Great Seed Swap at Wakehurst Place, 2011

James Wong and Matthew Biggs outside the Millennium Seed Bank at the Great Seed Swap, 2011

A successful first seed swap

The Millennium Seed Bank exhibition room was filled with gardeners, happily swapping seeds with the help of the campaign group Seedy Sunday. The national growing charity Garden Organic were also there, supplying interesting vegetable varieties through their Heritage Seed Library stall. Visitors were able to browse other stalls selling local produce, unusual seeds, and giving out information on local sustainability groups and campaigns. We also had a chef who prepared delicious meals from heritage vegetables that had been grown in the Wakehurst nursery.

The food diversity message

These seed swap events are designed to show people the incredible diversity of plant varieties that can be grown at home for food, and to encourage gardeners and horticulturalists to use as wide a range of plants as possible by exchanging seeds.

Rachael Davies demonstrating to visitors at the Great Seed Swap 2011

Rachael Davies, Processing Assistant at the Millennium Seed Bank, showing visitors how to process seeds on the seed swap stall

Early bookings for 2012

So, for this year’s seed swap we’ve started to get in touch with some of our friends from last year: those who supported our first seed swap and are keen to come back again.

  • Thomas Etty esq., a supplier of heritage seeds and bulbs, will have a stall selling seed packets and gift boxes.
  • Beans and Herbs will be selling seeds collected from different parts of the world, many of which are rare heirloom varieties with a fascinating history.
  • Transition Horsham will attend, with information about their community group which is committed to building a network of flexibility and resilience in the face of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.
  • The Rustic Mushroom Company will be selling woodland mushrooms and home-growing kits, and will even give demonstrations showing how to inoculate logs with mushroom spawn.
  • Growers of rare plants, Edulis, will have unusual edible plants and vegetables, fruit trees and shrubs, as well as autumn perennials.
  • And the Mid Sussex Wood Recycling Project will join us again, with their fantastic range of garden furniture made from recycled timber, by an environmentally responsible, not-for-profit social enterprise.

Heritage Seed Library varieties at the Great Seed Swap 2011

Packets of seeds from Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library at the Great Seed Swap, 2011

This gives you a taster of what to expect on Saturday 20 October 2012. Watch this space to find out who will be coming to give talks on the day, and to discover other activities and stalls that will be included in the programme.

- Vanessa -
 


 

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The cool blue seeds of the Malagasy traveller’s tree

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 06 Mar 2012
Truly blue seeds are about as rare as hens’ teeth.  In the first of his ‘Seed of the Month’ series, Millennium Seed Bank seed morphologist, Wolfgang Stuppy, explains why.
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Seed of the Month - Ravenala madagascariensis

The most amazing blue seeds I have ever come across belong to the Malagasy traveller’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis).

MSB - Ravenala madagascariensis    MSB- Ravenala_madagascariensis single seed

Malagasy traveller’s tree (left) and a single seed (right)

If blue is such a rare colour among seeds, there must be a good reason why the Malagasy traveller’s tree seeds have evolved such an exotic colour. The reason behind it is a fascinating example of the tightly interwoven natural history of plants and animals.

The Malagasy traveller’s tree is a close relative of the bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae) from South Africa and the very similar big palulu (Phenakospermum guianense) from South America.
 

MSB- Ravenala_madagascariensis fruit    MSB - Phenakospermum guianense fruits

Fruits of Malagasy traveller’s tree (left) and  big palulu (right)  (Images: Wolfgang Stuppy © RBG Kew)

Attracting animals

All three species belong to the Strelitziaceae family and all three produce seeds with edible appendages to attract animals for their dispersal. However, whilst the edible appendage of the seeds of Strelitzia and Phenakospermum has the appearance of a bright orange-red ‘wig’, the seeds of Ravenala are wrapped in an intensely blue, soft, wax-paper like appendage.

The red and black colour scheme is typical of, and very common in, bird-dispersed fruits and seeds whereas blue is extremely rare indeed.

MSB - Strelitzia_reginae flower    MSB - Strelitzia_reginae

 Bird-of-paradise flower (left) and its seeds (right) (Images: Wolfgang Stuppy © RBG Kew)

So why are they blue? 

Clearly, there must be a reason why Ravenala, geographically isolated in Madagascar, has evolved seeds with an intensely blue rather than red appendage. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has answered this question yet, but based on various pieces of evidence, I believe that the answer lies in the very special fauna of the island. So here goes my theory: There are not many fruit and seed eating birds in Madagascar so some plants have entered co-adaptive relationships with other animals to achieve the dispersal of their seeds. One such alternative are the lemurs, a diverse group of primates endemic to Madagascar.

MSB- Ravenala_madagascariensis seeds     MSB - Ringtail lemur

 

Seeds of  Ravenala madagascariensis (left) and a ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar (right)

And here comes the interesting fact...

Prosimians (‘half-apes’) such as lemurs and lorises (a related group of ‘half-apes’ found in Asia), have dichromatic vision and can only differentiate shades of blue and green but not red - whereas birds have very similar colour-vision to humans. So the shaggy red ‘wigs’ of the seeds of the bird-of-paradise flower would be wasted on the lemurs of Madagascar.

- Wolfgang -
 


 

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Collections from the Caribbean

By: David Hickmott - 28 Feb 2012
Follow a Millennium Seed Bank collector on an expedition to the Dominican Republic to save threatened and useful plants.
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My name is David Hickmott and I am a member of the Seed Conservation Department at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst.

Part of my job involves training our partners in seed banking practices and seed collecting all around the world. So far I have been involved in four expeditions to both Texas and California in the USA, Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and most recently, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

David standing on a cliff collecting seeds

Making a collection of Asteraceae on a dangerous cliff edge!

The Dominican Republic is a country of contrasts

It has both the highest peak and the lowest point in the Caribbean, and the distance between modern urban street life in Santo Domingo and the very basic rural villages only a short drive away.

During my 18 day trip I was based at the Jardin Botanical Garden in the country's capital Santo Domingo. Here they have magnificent gardens and also the beginnings of a native seed bank which I was there to give technical and procedural support to as well as help with some extensive seed collecting.

The first week of my visit saw us travel the length of the island from top to bottom. Travelling with two experienced local botanists and a colleague from Kew, Tiziana Ulian, we made 39 seed collections of targeted threatened and useful plant species. Towards the north of the Island, near the border of Haiti, the terrain gets quite mountainous. 

Tall Palm growing in Dominican Republic

View from Monte Cristi at the North West corner of the Dominican Republic.

Collecting seeds

When seed collecting we firstly have to make sure our targeted plants are producing healthy seeds. This can be done by performing a cut test to look at the quality and maturity of the seed. If the seeds are ready to be harvested we ideally try to collect from at least 50 individual plants and make a collection of up to 20,000 seeds!

We also collected seeds from many different palm species which was very difficult as you can imagine as the seeds can be over 15 feet in the air!

Teodoro Clase harvesting palm seeds using an extendable lopper.

Teodoro Clase harvesting palm seeds using an extendable lopper.

At the end of our first week we drove back to Santo Domingo with our truck full of seeds. The staff at Jardin Botanic Garden got to work straight away removing seeds from wet fruits and starting to dry the collections.

The following week we traveled to the coast on the north of the island, again making another 20 collections and staying in some very basic and ‘interesting’ hotels!

We do not normally bring back the collected seeds with us to the UK. The seeds I collected were fully cleaned by the staff at the gardens and also dried in silica gel barrels to ensure the longevity of the collected species. They were then shipped to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex for long term storage and extensive research.

It's hard work!

It is rare that you get much time off on such collecting trips, there’s so much to pack in! Working 12 hour days in 90 degree heat takes its toll so I added on two days annual leave at the end of my trip. I used this time to explore an amazing small island just off the coast and got some much needed relaxation time!

Beach, sea and palm trees on an island in the Dominican Republic

- David -
 


 

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Saving the seeds of love

By: Gemma Toothill - 13 Feb 2012
Come with me to the underground storage vault at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank to discover more about the heart marked seeds of 'love-in-a-puff' (Cardiospermum halicacabum).
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Today I have headed into the freezer to discover more about 'love-in-a-puff'. 

Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds - black with white heart shape on

Heart detail on seeds of Cardiospermum halicacabum (Image: Ellen Woods)

There are over 2 billion seeds from more than 30,000 plant species stored in the vaults at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. I went to the depths of this underground freezer to find one of the 17 collections of Cardiospermum halicacabum.

Over the last ten years we have received collections of this species sent in from Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Mali, Texas and Turks & Caicos. The plant has many medicinal properties and has been used in the treatment of rheumatism, eczema, ear ache, nervous diseases, stiffness of the limbs and swelling, to name but a few.

Heart seed plant

Flowers and fruits of Cardiospermum halicacabum (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy) 

Originating from Tropical America Cardiospermum halicacabum is a scrambling deciduous vine growing up to 3 m long. It is not the flowers that are showy but rather the inflated seed capsules, which give it the common name 'balloon vine'.

The capsules have three compartments, each one containing a single black spherical seed. The seed is fixed to its compartment by a small attachment, and as this loving attachment breaks, it leaves a white heart shaped scar.

The name is a Latinization of the Greek: kardia meaning heart, and sperma meaning seed.

 Jars from the MSB vault containing Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds 

 Jars from the vault containing Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds (Image: Gemma Toothill)

And this plant has other names as well. Cardiospermum halicacabum with its wonderful lantern-like balloon fruits and its seeds scarred with hearts is also romantically referred to as ‘love-in-a-puff’.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

- Gemma -

 


 

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About us

Staff at the MSB

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership works with over 80 countries worldwide as we work towards our current goal of collecting and storing seeds from 25% of the world's wild plant species. To complete such a target requires a wide range of skills and expertise including training, research, seed processing, database management and fundraising.

There are five teams based at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst in West Sussex. You will hear from all of us at some point through this blog.

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