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.
I recently attended the two-week Kew Seed Conservation Training course held from 7 to 18 October here in Ethiopia. The course was organized by the team of experts from the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, Kew, in collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity (EIB) and Wondo Genet College of Forestry. The course was attended by 15 participants all of whom work either on seed conservation or areas related to biodiversity conservation and who came from a variety of different institutions (ten from the EIB, two from the tree Seed Centre at the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture, two from Wondo Genet College of Forestry and myself from the Addis Ababa University Herbarium).
Participants group photo with course mentors at the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity (Photo: Mekbib Fekadu)
The training was fascinating and combined theory with practice. It covered all the necessary topics important for proper long-term seed conservation - starting from the planning of seed collection through to the point where seeds are stored in cold rooms and prepared for distribution for end users. The various things required for field seed collection were dealt with, and a practical field expedition was carried out to Shashemene Botanic Garden and Wondo Genet Arboretum. Here field seed collection methods and procedures were discussed and, as a group, we collected sample seeds from Vicia sativum L. with voucher herbarium specimens also being collected for reference.
Tim Pearce explaining field seed collection methods and procedures to the trainees at Shashemene Botanic Garden. (Photo: Mekbib Fekadu)
In the classroom
In the Wondo Genet College of Forestry laboratory we carried out moisture content measurement, desiccation tolerance testing and orthodox/recalcitrant seed testing. The germination and viability test and cut test and seed cleaning and counting were done in the laboratories at EIB in Addis Ababa.
Rachael Davies and Kate Gold explaining moisture content to course participants at Wondo Genet College of Forestry (Photo: Mekbib Fekadu)
Problems and plans
In addition some of the problems encountered in the Ethiopian Gene Bank were discussed. For example, the seed germination incubators and the seed cleaning aspiractor machine were fixed by Rachael. Additionally, a number of technical problems associated with failed components in the dry room were raised and the case transferred to the expert at Kew who I hope will be able to repair it. At the end of the training, we formed groups and discussed the activities we had been involved in and the problems which hamper us carrying out our activities. Finally we prepared our action plans, presented them to the group and commented on each others' plans.
A personal view
I was delighted to have taken part in this course. It helped me to understand more about seed physiology and management in a relatively short time. The knowledge and skills I gained will be a great help for my future and inform my research to integrate our seed conservation activities and work here at the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity with the work and activities of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.
This is the first time this kind of training has taken place in Ethiopia but it didn't seem like it, as the course was so well-organized and managed and gave the trainees a good in-depth knowledge incorporating relevant and timely examples from new and different perspectives.
I believe this is a very good start and has to continue in the future on a regular basis in order to produce many more skilful conservationists and natural resource scientists in my country and beyond. Who knows - if it continues like this with such strength and commitment one day it could be one of the leading international training courses which could invite participants from other parts of the world and help us all to work together and share experiences of seed conservation from all over the world.
- Mekbib -
Department of Plant Biology and Biodiversity Management
College of Natural Sciences, Addis Ababa University
- Kew Gardens Specialist Training Courses in Seed Conservation
- Training with Kew's Millennium Seed Bank
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Bags in the Palm House
Should you visit the wonderful Palm House conservatory at Kew (nice weather guaranteed all year around) you will come across some fabric bags hanging from some of the plants. Don’t worry, these are not early Christmas treats. These bags are part of a Seed Collection project carried out by horticulturists at Kew.
Pollination bags on a specimen of Hibiscus clayi in the Palm House (Photo: Noelia Alvarez)
The living collections seed project
The project aims to bank seeds from the living collections held at RBG Kew. Priority is given to wild collected, conservation rated and historical specimens. The seeds are then safely stored in the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. This way we are safeguarding the collections for the future. It is a long-term insurance against the complete loss of the species and also provides a source of material for study of those species.
The bags are used to avoid cross pollination between closely related plants. This way the flowers which contain the reproductive organs of the plant are isolated from potential pollinators that transfer pollen in their search for rewards. The bags are made of very fine polyester (bridal veil) and they have been designed and made at Kew by volunteers skilled in this craft.
Sign in the Palm House explaining the pollination project (Photo: Noelia Alavarez)
The next step is to hand pollinate the flowers inside the bags: this is the most fascinating part. There are so many plant families at Kew and understanding how the plant breeds in nature helps us with the pollination work. We have pollinated orchids, such as Gongora armeniaca, which in nature are pollinated by a group of bees called euglossine bees. The male bees collect the fragrant, oily compounds that the flowers secrete (these oils make them attractive to the female bees). It is an interesting symbiosis where the bees depend on the orchid fragrances they collect for their reproductive success and the orchids likewise depend on the euglossine bees for pollination.
We also pollinate plants which in their natural habitats are pollinated by geckos, for example Nesocodon mauritianus with its brightly red nectar - an attractive visual signal for lizards. And also plants pollinated by sunbirds like Aloe classenii - the birds tend to have long beaks adapted for extracting the copious nectar from the tubular flowers.
We use different tools to transfer the pollen from one flower to another, paint brushes (natural hair ones help with pollen adherence), tweezers, sewing pins, toothpicks, musical tuning forks, our fingers, and sometimes even our own hair.
Student Kasia Babel hand pollinating Hibiscus clayi (Photo: Noelia Alvarez)
Collection and storage
After pollination, if fertilization has been successful, a fruit is formed. The next step will be to collect the seeds at the optimum stage of their development when they are at their peak of maturity. This way the seed won’t lose viability when stored in the freezers at the Millennium Seed Bank. There are indicators of readiness for collection such as changes in fruit colour, fruits splitting, seeds rattling, changes of texture of the fruit wall, some seeds already dispersed, and so on.
Finally the seeds are collected into well-labelled cloth or paper bags which allow air flow and prevent mould formation and sent to the Seed Conservation Department at the Millennium Seed Bank where they are processed, tested and stored.
We have many examples of successful seed collections produced from our ex situ collections which are now safely stored at the Millennnium Seed Bank, for example:
- Begonia salaziensis from Mauritius where the total population is recorded as being less than 50 individuals
- Teline nervosa, endemic to the island of Gran Canaria (Canary Islands), where it is only present in two locations extremely threatened by exotic species, and urbanised areas
...and many, many more.
I expect the bags will be in the Palm House until the end of November, if not longer. We will be setting more bags in the Princess of Wales Conservatory and outside in the gardens from spring onwards.
Taking into account the large number of important living collections held at RBG Kew which we need to collect, you can expect to come across quite a few bags around the Gardens, each one helping us with the isolation and preservation of flowers around the garden.
- Noelia -
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Between 27 August and 5 September I was involved in a seed collecting trip on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. We went with the team from the Botany Department of the Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi (San Sebastián) who manage the Basque Country Seed Bank. The team was formed of two botanists and two biology students. During the last two days, we were joined by three botanists from the Jardín Botánico Atlántico (Gijón) and the Jardín Botánico de Olarizu (Vitoria).
LaKartxela mountain in the West Pyrenees (Photo: Teresa Gil)
The Pyrenees contain one of the highest levels of plant diversity in Europe (4,000-4,500 species). This is due to the complexity of the mountain range which has a high altitudinal gradient and a diverse range of climates, geology and ecosystems. Around 200 plant taxa are endemic to the Pyrenees.
Climbing to Alanos collecting area (Photo: J. Garmendia)
Aim of the trip
The aim of this field trip was to collect seeds of target endemic species and structural species of habitats of community interest, as well as to collect population data that would help with monitoring their conservation status.
We collected 83 taxa, most of them endemic to the Pyrenees and to the Pyrenees-Cantabrian region. Forty of the taxa are new collections for the Millennium Seed Bank. The seeds were collected following the ENSCONET protocol and associated data, herbarium vouchers and photos were gathered for each seed collection. The preliminary field work done to locate the plant populations and to check the phenological status of the populations was key to maximising the seed collecting.
I have been always fascinated by the plant diversity and endemicity of the Pyrenees. Collecting the seeds of so many different plants was a very enriching and interesting experience. I had the opportunity to observe, learn, understand and share with other botanists the diversity of reproductive and seed dispersion strategies that high mountain plants have.
Collecting seeds of Phleum alpinum in Lakora using a transect methodology (Photo: J. Garmendia)
Some of the target species populations are located at high altitude and several hours of trekking were required to reach them. Once arrived, we were a very efficient group of seed collectors. For each taxa we decided beforehand to adopt the most effective seed collecting strategy.
Collecting seeds of Callitriche palustris in Lakora lake (Photo: Teresa Gil)
In the first week we collected in the Navarra region. We spent four days collecting in the Pikatua, Lakora, LaKartxela and Ori mountains.
Collecting seeds of Festuca eskia on Lakora mountain (Photo: J.Garmendia)
Fog in the mountains
The first four days we were working in a thick fog which, unfortunately, obscured the beautiful views of the landscape.
Collecting seeds in the fog on Ori mountain (Photo: Teresa Gil)
It was much cooler than we expected; however, with warm jackets and high spirits, we managed to make some good collections.
Collecting seeds in the fog on Ori mountain (Photo: Teresa Gil)
For example, we made good collections of several endemic plants such as Teucrium pyrenaica, Onobrychis pyrenaica and Petrocoptis hispanica.
Flowers of Teucrium pyrenaica (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Fruits of Teucrium pyrenaica (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Fruits of Onobrychis pyrenaica (Photo: J.Garmendia)
Collecting Petrocoptis hispanica requires a lot of patience and concentration. It was almost a meditation experience, as we collected the capsules one by one from small plants growing in the cracks of the rocks.
Rocky habitat of Petrocoptis hispanica (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Most of them were empty so we needed to select those with at least one seed or, if we were lucky, with more than two tiny, black seeds.
Petrocoptis hispanica (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Capsules of Petrocoptis hispanica showing one black seed (Photo: Teresa Gil)
We also tried to collect the endemic Viola cornuta, but we could not find enough fruits. It seems this plant disperses its seeds very quickly. After looking carefully in the area where the population was, we gave up and decided to leave it for next year as we only found one beautiful capsule ready to be collected.
Capsule with seeds of Viola cornuta (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Collecting in the Petraficha mountain pass
During the second week we were collecting in the Aragon region in the Petraficha mountain pass and in different parts of Alanos peaks. Fortunately, it was sunny and warm, so seed collecting was thankfully much easier. We collected seeds of several endemic taxa like Galium cespitosum, Galium pyrenaicum and Lilium pyrenaicum. Collecting Galium cespitosum took some time but we were a very good group of seed collectors and within one hour we made a good collection and were ready to keep walking and collecting.
Collecting seeds of Galium cespitosum in Petraficha mountain pass (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Detail of plant and fruits of Galium cespitosum (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Lunch with vultures
Almost every day we were visited by a pair of Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) during our lunch break. They were probably flying over our heads the whole time but we were so focused on seed collecting that we did not realise they were there until we sat down on a rock and began looking at the landscape while we ate our yummy sandwiches.
Processing and planning
Every evening when we came back to the hostel we spent some time processing the herbarium vouchers and taking care of the seed collections (post-harvest handling). Due to the fog of the first few days the seeds were completely soaked and there was a high risk of deterioration through ageing or mould. Drying them was an urgent task.
Seeds drying (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Halfway through our trip we had a meeting at the Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología (CSIC) in Jaca, who warmly hosted us. We discussed a project proposal to develop an “Ex-situ conservation programme in the North of Spain” including the Cantabrian range and the Pyrenees. It was a very fruitful meeting and once we successfully raise enough funds we will start its implementation, hopefully in time for the next seed collecting season.
Herbarium vouchers processing (Photo: Teresa Gil)
Now staff members from Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi are busy cleaning the collected seeds and we are looking forward to receiving the duplicates at the Millennium Seed Bank in the coming months.
- Teresa -
- European Native Seed Conservation Network (ENSCONET)
- Aranzadi Science Society
- Jardín Botánico Atlántico
- The Seed Bank Olarizu Botanical Garden
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I suspected a title mentioning gladiators and beer would pique your interest! Now before you slip into a reverie about Russell Crowe, encased in armour and fighting off a dozen gladiators, let me bring you back to earth (I promise it’ll be worth it) to tell you about the incredible barley.
Barley growing in Pembrokeshire in Wales (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)
Hordeum vulgare, as it is known in Latin, is the fourth most important cereal crop in the world after wheat, maize, and rice. It is mainly grown to feed livestock but second to this is its importance in malting for beer brewing and whiskey making. Those savvy Ancient Egyptians caught on to the idea early and archaeological evidence of barley grains found in the great pyramids of Egypt 5,000 years ago, as well as in ancient Egyptian and Sumerian writings, suggest that our ancestors have been enjoying the good stuff for millennia.
Some 4,000 year-old barley grains from the Middle Kingdom site of Kahun, Egypt. Excavated in 1889 and now housed at the Economic Botany Collection (Photo: Mark Nesbitt)
The cultivation of barley occurred in the Fertile Crescent, the region surrounding modern day Israel and Jordan, around 8,000 BC. Its wild ancestor is Hordeum vulgare subsp. spontaneum and while the two grasses are very closely related, the main difference between them is found in the spikes that hold the seeds. In wild barley they are brittle, which means that once the seed matures the spikelets separate easily enabling seed dispersal, whereas cultivated barley has non-shattering spikes which means that the plant holds onto the mature seeds, making them much easier to harvest. (This distinction between wild and cultivated forms is mirrored in many other crops.)
The development of non-shattering spikes
This is how it all came about. Domestication begins with the harvesting of seeds from a wild population of plants. Some plants will have lost the natural ability to shed their seeds when ripe and these were more likely to be collected and re-sown than those plants whose seeds were already scattered. My seed collecting friends have confirmed this – it is far easier to pull the seeds off a plant than to scrounge around on the ground for the matured fallen seed which, supposing it even belonged to the plant you’re interested in, could already be mouldy or pest-ridden. So, generations later, this non-shattering characteristic would become fixed in the population, and today one of the most striking features of nearly all crop plants is that, unlike their wild relatives, they retain their seeds and depend almost entirely on humans to gather and sow their seeds. Indeed, many crops would die out if there were no humans to sow or plant them.
Barley is a tough cookie and makes for a tough gladiator too
From arctic latitudes and alpine altitudes to salty desert oases, barley can grow in extreme environments where other crops are unable to survive. It is typically a temperate crop but it can also be found growing in tropical countries where poor farmers are able to benefit from barley’s resilience to hostile, dry, environments. In places like Nepal, Tibet and Ethiopia farmers grow barley on mountain slopes at higher elevations than other cereals and in the dry areas of the Middle East and North Africa, barley is often the only suitable crop. The key producers of barley today are Russia, Canada, Germany, France, Ukraine, Spain, Turkey, UK, Australia, USA and Denmark.
Tibetan barley fields (Photo: Richard W. Hughes)
As well as being a fodder and malting crop, barley is also cultivated for direct human consumption. Its value as a high energy carbohydrate source has been documented since Roman times when gladiators were called hordearii, literally meaning “barley men”. Gladiators would fatten up on a diet of simple carbohydrates such as barley so that when they entered the ring in a battle to the death, the extra layers of subcutaneous fat would protect them from cut wounds and shield nerves and blood vessels. Apparently fat gladiators made for a more spectacular show. Gladiators wounded only at the fatty layer would be able to keep on fighting and bloody, maimed, unrelenting chubby gladiators were exactly the kind of thing Romans went wild over. In addition to being a gladiator-worthy carbohydrate source, certain barleys are also remarkably high in protein, such as some Ethiopian varieties which contain up to 18% protein.
A spiritual experience (and this time I’m not talking about whiskey!)
Today, barley is eaten in several remote parts of the world such as Tibet and parts of North Africa where nothing else can grow. Tsampa, a delicious Tibetan dish made with roasted barley and prepared with tea, is consumed daily in villages throughout Tibet.
Tibetans enjoying tsampa (Photo: Roland von Bothmer)
For Tibetans, the preparation and consumption of tsampa is a sacred and ritualised process where the ingredients barley flour, butter, tea and cheese represent the four elements of the earth – namely earth, fire, water, and wind. When making tsampa, the mixture of these ingredients must form a pile that reaches higher than the mouth of the bowl. This pile symbolises the universal mountain of Tibetan Buddhism, which is a representation of the entire world. Before the meal, Tibetans chant and make offerings to all sentient beings by throwing small bits of tsampa into the air or on the ground. In Tibetan culture, barley flour is also used to make incense offerings to the mountain gods and often forms a part of religious offerings in temples.
Barley improvement through the use of Crop Wild Relatives
Like all crops, barley has to contend with pests, diseases and environmental stresses such as drought, salinity and climate change. Changes in drought and salinity levels, which are expected to worsen with climate change, will not just affect beer production but will also impact on the food supply of those people who depend directly on barley as a staple part of their diet. Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is a necessary step towards stalling the effects of climate change but, in addition to this, we need to arm ourselves against climate change by adapting our crops to future climate scenarios. The wild relatives of barley are a rich source of genetic diversity which has great potential for barley improvement. Drought- and salt-tolerant genes have been identified in the crop wild relative Hordeum vulgare subsp. spontaneum and disease resistance has been found in Hordeum bulbosum. Other traits from H. bulbosum, such as perenniality, have the potential to alter the crop for a more sustainable production and maintenance of genetic diversity.
Barley Varieties Displayed at The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) (Photo: Global Crop Diversity Trust)
The Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project, jointly organised by the Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, aims to protect, collect and prepare the wild relatives of 29 key food crops, including barley. By making these seeds available to pre-breeders the useful traits they hold can be used to improve crops and therefore safeguard our future food security.
And finally, something for our furry friends
Those of you with pet cats will have noted their occasional craving for grass. Rather than have them nibbling on your houseplants, Cat grass (Hordeum vulgare subsp. variegata) is a variety of barley which has been cultivated to satisfy the highly sophisticated tastebuds of our feline companions. It makes quite an attractive houseplant too!
A cat licking her chops over cat grass (Photo : Jungleseeds)
- Sarah -
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Thank goodness it’s Friday! How many of us have said that during our working lives? I know I have. In fact, I still do, but now I say it not because the weekend is near, but because Friday is my Seed Bank volunteering day.
What do Seed Bank volunteers do? Well, some assist in the research and management support sections, but most of us work in the conservation and technology section. We help to clean the seeds which come in from all over the world, and prepare them for long-term storage. While awaiting cleaning, the seeds are stored at low temperature (15°C) and humidity (15% RH).
All sorts of techniques are used: simply sieving to remove debris can be enough in some cases, but other seeds may need to be crushed to remove the pod (think peas), or rubbed to remove the husk (think grasses) or the pappus (think dandelions). Sieving is fine if the seeds and the debris are of different sizes, but not much use if everything is the same size. So long as the seeds and the debris are of different weights we can use a device called an aspirator – a sort of mechanised winnowing machine. The seeds are dropped down through an upward current of air and the lighter material is blown upwards to land in one box and the heavier material drops down to land in a separate box.
Sometimes it is just not possible to remove all the debris but we try to reduce the bulk as much as possible as space in the Seed Bank vault is at a premium.
Over the last few weeks we have been working on collections from the Falkland Islands, many of them grasses, and I think we’ll be glad when they are finished, as getting the seeds off the stalks and out of their husks has been very time-consuming.
Me wrestling with Falkland Islands grass seeds (Photo: Jean Helliwell)
We all enjoy our volunteering at the Seed Bank and are happy to turn our hands to any task, but please no more grasses for a bit!
There are currently 15 volunteers working in the Millennium Seed Bank. Each volunteer commits to at least one full day per week which is a great help. Due to the high profile of the MSB there is already a large waiting list of individuals wishing to donate their time for this great project so currently we are at full capacity.
- Jean Helliwell -
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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.
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