Safeguarding the endemic, threatened and useful flora of the Caucasus.
The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is currently working with partners in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to develop and execute a co-ordinated approach to collecting and conserving seed collections within the region. The overall goal will be achieved through a series of different projects, including the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change and the Global Tree Seed Bank projects.
The region of the Caucasus is located between the Black and Caspian seas, and encompasses either all or parts of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and Iran. This unique cross section of different countries has made the Caucasus a unique melting pot of cultures, religions and political dramas. Most biblical and Greek scholars also believe that the Caucasus is where Noah landed after the flood subsided; where Prometheus was condemned by Zeus and chained to a cliff; and where the Argonauts journeyed to search for the Golden Fleece.
The Caucasus has a huge tapestry of different habitats, from alpine mountains to temperate and sub-tropical forests, resulting in a fascinating mix of plants and animal species. Internationally, the region is recognised as one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, and with over 25% of its 6,400 plant species known as endemic, the Caucasus also has the highest level of endemism in the temperate world.
Kew’s role in the project
Much like the Argonauts, the MSB is now on a quest to secure 25% of all plants species by 2020. The Caucasus is part of this mission and with a staggering list of over 2,000 endemic plant species in the region alone, strong partnerships with local botanical and research institutions in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have proven to be invaluable. Through these partnerships, the MSB hopes to secure the conservation of rare, threatened and useful species of Caucasus flora, as well as to build in-country capacity for plant conservation.
MSBP: Saving the Flora of the Caucasus project
In Georgia this project is the most established and has been running since 2006. The partners MSB works with are the Institute of Botany of Georgia and the National Botanic Gardens of Georgia. These two partners have been integral to the success of ex situ plant conservation in Georgia. The Institute of Botany is home to the National Herbarium of Georgia, whilst the National Botanic Garden manages the Caucasus Regional Seed Bank (CRSB), both holding seed collection and herbarium vouchers of important species in Georgia. Seeds from over 1,000 species have been made under this partnership and staff from both institutions have undergone a range of different training activities. MSB has facilitated the purchase of equipment for use throughout the stages of seed collection and conservation. The collections are quality assessed and undergo viability testing both at the CRSB and at the MSB, where collections are stored and made available for conservation and research activities. Some of these collections have also been propagated and can be found in the exhibition gardens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the National Botanic Gardens in Georgia.
In Armenia the MSB have an ongoing partnership with the Institute of Botany of the Armenian Academy of Sciences since 2011. To date, the team have collected and conserved over 200 plant species, and plan to continue collecting at least 60 new species each year. Technology and skills transfer activities are currently underway between the MSB and the Institute of Botany in Armenia. The MSB is supporting this through providing vital equipment and inviting staff to key training events in seed collecting, processing and germination testing.
In Azerbaijan, the MSB ran a 2-year pilot project in 2012, which saw the collection of over 100 species safeguarded at the MSB and Azerbaijan. The MSB is working with the Institute of Botany of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Science to renew this project and collect 60 wild and useful plants per year. There are plans to increase capacity through repurposing idle spaces for seed processing and storage.
Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change (Crop Wild Relatives) project
In collaboration with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and funded by the Government of Norway, the MSBP is working with the partners to safeguard wild relatives of the most important crop species . The focus of this particular project is not just to identify specific species, but also endeavour to collect multiple populations of each species, thus increasing the genetic diversity within the collection, giving us a better chance at combatting the future effects of climate change.
As part of this project, the MSB are supporting our partners by producing collecting guides specific to each country. These guides are designed to help each partner with identification of their target species and the best time and technique to collect seeds.
In Georgia, the same partners as the MSB Saving the Flora of Caucasus project were engaged in 2014. Since the conception of the project in Georgia, our partners have helped safeguard over 85 populations of crop wild relatives of apples, carrots and clovers. This is a step towards the 27 species and over 190 populations planned to be collected from Georgia.
In Azerbaijan, the MSB have been working with the Genetic Resource Institute (GRI) of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences since 2015 in order to safeguard approximately 65 species from over 300 populations. At the end of 2015 the MSB successfully received the first batch of seed shipments under this project, which included wild relatives of carrots and barley.
In Armenia, the MSB is working with the Institute of Botany of Armenia to focus on wild relatives of 12 crop species, including rye, alfalfa and oats. Our partners in Armenia signed up to this project in 2015, and were expecting the first package of seeds to arrive in spring 2016.
The Global Tree Seed Bank Project
Generously funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation, the main focus of this project is to collect and safeguard rare, threatened and/or highly useful tree and woody herbaceous plant species within the Caucasus. The aim for us and our partners is to target at least 200 species in four years. Partners came together in Georgia to discuss the specific aims of the project within the context of each country and spent time identifying specific species they would be able to collect.
In Georgia the plan is for each partner to collect at least 11 target species per year. The list includes the beautifully allusive Colchian hazel (Corylus colchica), which is only found in small and fragmented populations in certain regions of Georgia. Very little is known about this species, and indeed, many other species in the target list. The hope is through these seed collecting trips, the subsequent data will have the potential of increasing our understanding of vulnerable tree species in Georgia.
In Armenia, trees still hold some strong importance in certain areas, either as sacred trees that people believe hold their power even after death, to wishing trees, where local people tie handkerchiefs to ensure that their wishes may come true. Therefore, there is no doubt of the importance of this particular project to our Armenian partners. A pledge to collect 66 species from a list of 200 endemic species is planned. Additionally, MSB will also support the redevelopment of additional seed processing facility within the SEED Bank of Armenian Flora (SBAF) to increase the capacity for plant conservation within Armenia.
In Azerbaijan plans are also underway to collect at least 66 species of rare and threatened tree species. The MSB is working with the Institute of Botany and the Central Botanic Garden of Azerbaijan to safeguard these 66 species, including updating the location and population sizes of these species, as some historical records go back many decades.
Improving Infrastructure for Seed Conservation
As well as increasing the skills and knowledge for staff within the Caucasus, the MSB is working to increase the technical capacity within our partner countries. Thanks to a generous donation from the Rufford Foundation and an anonymous donor, the MSB is working with Georgian partners to add a dry room to the existing seed bank managed by the National Botanic Garden in Georgia. This will give our partners increased capacity to grow their own seed collection, as well as to ensure the longevity of the most important species.
Similar redevelopment activities are happening in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where capacity is slowly increasing through various different projects and training activities.
- To safeguard the security of endemic, threatened or useful floral species in the whole of the Caucasus through ex situ conservation and living collections.
- To contribute to future food security through collecting and conserving wild relatives of important crop species.
- To build capacity within the Caucasus to enhance plant conservation.
 The 29 crops and their wild relatives can be found in Annex 1 of the International Treaty on plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The list includes: bananas, breadfruit, asparagus, oat, beet, brassica, pigeon pea, chickpea, citrus, coconut, barley, lentil, cassava, rice, apples, maize and many more.
- Approximately 1,752 species listed under the recently published Red List of the endemic plants of the Caucasus successfully banked in the countries of origin and duplicated at the Millennium Seed Bank.
- Approximately 600 populations of wild relatives of crop species safeguarded across the whole of the Caucasus.
- Development of seed collections in-country that meet MSB’s standards.
- Enhancing our knowledge of the most threatened species through scientific research of genetic diversity, propagation studies and IUCN assessments.
- Global Crop Diversity Trust
- National Botanic Gardens of Georgia
- Institute of Botany, Ilia University Georgia
- Institute of Botany of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia
- Armenian Botanical Society NGO
- Genetic Research Institute of the National Academy of Sciences Azerbaijan
- Institute of Botany of the National Academy of Sciences Azerbaijan
- The Cyclamen Society
- Botanic Gardens Conservation Internationa
- Rufford Foundation
- The Cyclamen Society
- Global Crops Trust
- Garfield Weston Foundation