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Wildflower Center, Fellow Seed Bankers Mark Milestone

Giving News

By Barbra Rodriguez

An international partnership of 54 countries led by the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew — and featuring the participation of UT’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center — is celebrating a decade of work to set aside seeds from 10 percent of the world’s wild flowering species for future generations. Thousands of seeds from nearly 25,000 native plant species have been collected and frozen at locations across the globe as part of the $108 million Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Project, the world’s largest seed bank dedicated to wild plant species.

Texas Bluebonnet

Seeds of the bluebonnet and other Texas species have been preserved.

In Texas, grants from the Houston Endowment, Midland’s Abell-Hanger Foundation, and San Antonio’s Shield-Ayres Foundation have helped support the Wildflower Center’s MSB collections. The 590 Texas species whose seeds have been preserved so far include everything from the Texas bluebonnet to angels’ trumpets to wild buckwheat. “Texas contains nearly a quarter of all native flora in North America, and it has been a tremendous honor to help save the genetic legacy of the state’s iconic native plants as participants in the Millennium Seed Bank Project,” says Susan Rieff, director of the Wildflower Center. “We are especially proud of our dedicated staff members who have stockpiled seeds for the Project from hundreds of plant species that may face future threats to survival.”

Kew’s major MSB partners are present in Australia, Chile, China, Kenya, Mexico, and elsewhere. In the United States, where the project is also called the Seeds of Success program, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Bureau of Land Management, and four U.S. nonprofits have collected seeds. Other seed banking projects have focused primarily on plants that are agricultural crops. Yet plants do more than serve as the food base for the planet. They also provide medicine, building material, and fuel, and are essential for regulating the climate and purifying our water and air. An estimated one-third of known plants worldwide are under threat due to habitat destruction, exploitation, and invasive plant species that compete for resources.

“In a time of increasing concern about loss of biodiversity and climate change, Kew’s MSB partnership provides a real message of hope and is a vital resource in an uncertain world,” says Professor Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “The need for the kind of insurance policy and practical conservation resource the Millennium Seed Bank provides has never been greater.”

Michael Eason collects seeds in Devils River State Natural Area.

Michael Eason from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center collects seeds in Devils River State Natural Area.

In Texas, home of the first plant to be listed on the Endangered Species List, 23 other plants species are now endangered and five more are considered threatened. Meanwhile, more than 200 of the state’s roughly 6,000 plant species are listed as “species of concern” with too little known about them because of resource constraints to make informed decisions about their conservation. “As an MSB partner, we have collected and banked 10,000 or more seeds from species that form the backbone of landscapes that make Texas what it is,” says Flo Oxley, the center’s director of plant conservation and education. “These seeds can be used to preserve native species whose usefulness we may not even know yet, for plant research and other conservation purposes.”

For example, seeds are being preserved as part of MSB from some of the nine Ash tree species in Texas that could become useful if the state gets hit with emerald ash borer, an exotic beetle discovered in Michigan in 2002. The beetle has killed millions of ash trees in Michigan and 12 other states. Even native insects could become a threat, as has been the case with pine beetles in the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere that have decimated western conifer forests, likely the result of recent warm winters and drought that weakened trees.

angel's trumpet

Angels’ trumpets are native to the U.S. southwest.

The Wildflower Center’s Michael Eason and Minnette Marr have crisscrossed the state since 2002, climbing rocky cliffs in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, searching for plants in the El Paso desert, wading through East Texas bogs and facing other challenges to capture plants with fruit containing seeds ready for picking. More than 100 volunteers and botany colleagues have assisted them across Texas, helping collect the seeds and prepare them to freeze down at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit for 200 years or more. Six hundred collections have been made during the first phase of the MSB project in Texas, with roughly half the 6 million seeds preserved at Kew, and the remainder shared between the Wildflower Center and the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo.

The Wildflower Center’s seed collection efforts have been facilitated by staff at Sul Ross State University, Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, and the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, as well as by private landowners, federal agencies, and non-profits such as The Nature Conservancy. Kew and its partners are seeking funding for the next phase of the MSB partnership, which will focus on conserving an added 15 percent of the world’s plant species by 2020. The second phase will also involve sharing collected seeds to restore plant populations and to research drought-resistant crops and other sustainable uses of plants. Some of these applications are already under way.

Learn more about the global MSB Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website.

Watch an eight-minute video on the Wildflower Center’s involvement in the project.

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