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Millennium Seed Bank Exhibition

This exhibition explains why plants are essential to our existence and what the Millennium Seed Bank is doing to preserve them.

Visitors in the Millennium Seed Bank Exhibition

Did you know?

  • Timing is important when collecting seeds. Wakehurst’s collectors often use weather satellite data to find out if rain has fallen in the target area, as this improves their chances of finding plants in flower and fruit – and hence seed-bearing.
  • Some of the seeds held safely in the MSB came from the plant Euphorbia meuleniana. The plant has only been found at a single site in Yemen and is so rare it has no common name.
  • The seeds of the castor oil bean are probably the world’s most poisonous seeds. They contain a chemical called ricin, which is 6,000 times more poisonous than cyanide. A dose of ricin roughly similar to the weight of a grain of table salt can kill a human. However castor oil extracted from the seeds is used to power racing cars and speedway bikes.

About the exhibition

Plants are vital to our existence, providing foods, building materials, fibres for clothing, medicines and fuel. However, habitats around the world are being rapidly destroyed by activities such as logging and urban developments.

This destruction is happening at such a pace that it is not always possible to conserve plants within threatened habitats. Collecting seeds and preserving them ex situ (away from their natural habitat) offers an economical and effective way to save seeds and keep them for posterity. In the future, if required, they can be germinated and reintroduced to the wild or used in scientific research.

The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Exhibition explains to visitors why collecting seeds is vital, shows how seeds are collected and demonstrates the process they undergo once arriving at the MSB in the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building. The exhibition includes a wealth of information on little-known but vital plants from around the world. We learn, for example:

  • how fruits of the desert date sustained people during the 1980s Ethiopian famine
  • that Aboriginal people of Australia’s Central Desert make bread from seeds of the woollybutt plant (Eragrostis eriopoda)
  • that studies on seeds from the Cretan vetch (Vicia cretica) held in the MSB are being used in research into blood groups

As well as viewing a short scene-setting film, interactive screens and exhibits of plant material, visitors can also see what is going on behind the scenes at the MSB through the windows that run either side of the Exhibition Room.

Things to look out for

A ‘seed wall’ shows the huge range of shapes and sizes that seeds come in. For example, the seeds of the lady’s slipper orchid are smaller than a printed full-stop, while those of the double coconut palm (Lodoicea maldivica) can be 40 cm by 80 cm large and weigh 20 kg.

The exhibition is located in the Orange Room between the two laboratory wings. The interactive touchscreen exhibition, on screens all round the room, shows how seeds are collected from the wild and what happens to them when they first arrive at the Seed Bank. Visitors can also discover how seeds are stored in the Millennium Seed Bank itself and why it is so important that seeds are stored for the future.

Opening times

10am - 5pm (1 March to 31 October)
10am - 3.30pm (1 November to end February)