'A gold reserve... a place where this reserve currency, in this case life itself, is stored.' So said HRH the Prince of Wales as he opened the Millennium Seed Bank in 2000. Open all year round the MSB is a hub for scientific activity where visitors can discover more about its vital mission to conserve 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020.
By storing the world's seeds, the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) aims to provide an insurance policy against the extinction of plants in the wild.
This is important because plants provide food, building materials, fibres for clothing, medicines and fuel, but also it is preserving our botanical heritage for generations. However the destruction of plant habitats is happening so fast 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 MSB team initially aimed to store seeds from all of the UK’s native plant species. It achieved this in 2009, apart from a handful of species that are either very rare or whose seeds are particularly difficult to store.
This means that Britain is the first country in the world to have preserved its botanical heritage.
The current phase of the project is to conserve 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020 and we are well on our way to achieving this goal.
MSB scientists work with partners in more than 95 countries around the world. Where possible, collections of seeds stored at Wakehurst are duplicated in seed banks in the country where they were collected.
The team focuses on plants
The work also helps nations meet international objectives, such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations Environment Programme.
The Wellcome Trust Millennium Building replaced earlier cold stores of seeds held at Kew and Wakehurst.
Three glass sections house laboratories, seed-preparation facilities and a public exhibition area. Under these lie a vast storage vault.
The building provides the best possible conditions for seed storage, while maximising energy conservation. And the low-level building with barrel vaulted roofing sits in harmony with the surrounding landscape.
Secret Structures – the inside story of plants is a fascinating exhibition revealing the hidden mysteries of plants to the naked eye.
A micro-scanning table allows you to see the inner world of various plants, nuts and wood. An interactive digital table displays scanned specimens of a slipper orchid, a carved walnut, a whole Brazil nut fruit and a section of white oak, with explanations of these objects in the wild and their importance to the local economy.
On the parterre outside the MSB building, raised beds evoke eight threatened habitats of the British Isles.
These habitats are shingle beach, chalk cliff, chalk downland and meadow, all of which can be found between the south coast and Wakehurst. Also represented are marsh and fenland, hills and mountains, heathland and cornfield.
Seeds from these habitats are stored in the Millennium Seed Bank to preserve them for future generations.