Standing in the Most Species-rich Place on Earth

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The Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. (Photo: RBG Kew)

Where is the most species-rich place on earth? Surely a coruscating coral reef? A dripping tropical rain forest? A boiling oceanic ridge? Wherever it is it must surely be a beautiful and awe-inspiring place. A place to gaze around open-mouthed, to write poetry, to inspire the old and the young, to capture on canvas. But not so. It’s actually a large, gray-colored underground cupboard-like room below what was once a farmer’s field in the pretty countryside of southern England.

This is no museum or herbarium of dead, dried, pickled, staring specimens. The 30,000 plant species accommodated here—10% of the world’s total—are all alive.  But there is not a movement to be seen. Indeed, at minus 20 degrees Centigrade, movement for most organisms would have been halted. Down there in the basement, peering in through the porthole of the freezer, there wasn’t a green plant to be seen. Just shelf upon shelf of jars after jars of tubes after tubes containing...seeds.

Jars of seeds in the cold store at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. (Photo: RBG Kew)
This is the main storeroom of the Millennium Seed Bank established by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, at leafy Wakehurst Place in West Sussex which is owned by the National Trust and run by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The Wakehurst gardens have an international reputation and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to see the beautiful formal beds, the lakes, the wonderful collection of trees and an Elizabethan mansion.

It’s worth thinking a little about 30,000 species. I could recognize only a small fraction of that number. I’m typing this on the floor of London’s cavernous Royal Albert Hall waiting for the 27th BBC Promenade Concert of 2010 to start. Looking up and around I am surrounded by 5,000 people. If each one represents a species, Britain’s entire flora could be held here in quadruple sets. Madagascar is the same area as Britain but its flora would have to split into two and switch over at the interval, and even that would be a squash. The flora of the 48 contiguous US states would need two intervals for all the species to be accommodated. That’s a lot of plant species. But the Millennium Seed Bank—the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world—has 30,000. So far. They aim to have 25% of the world’s wild plant species banked by 2020. 

Seeds being stored at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. (Photo: RBG Kew)
Although it is a myth that seeds from ancient Egyptian tombs have been viable, a 2,000 year-old date palm seed found in excavations of Herod’s Great Palace in Israel in 2005 is growing nicely. The techniques of drying and freezing can keep many seeds alive almost indefinitely. Seeds are ‘time capsules of life’ and they are the means not just for regenerating, but also for surviving unfavorable periods for growth. They will ‘switch on’ whenever they ‘feel’ the conditions are right, and knowing how to dry and freeze each species’ seeds and what conditions act as the ‘switch’ are among the topics the seed bank staff strive to discover. Every year they perform thousands of germination tests to check survival.

The seed bank is far more than just a static collection. Rather it represents humankind’s effective and low-cost global insurance policy against catastrophic events that could wipe out the plant species from an area. The Millennium Seed Bank is not in this alone for they have instituted a worldwide network of over 100 organizations in over 50 countries to coordinate the conservation of wild plants’ seeds. Some of the seeds have already been used in land rehabilitation or reintroduction schemes. Some 600 people are involved worldwide, though not many of those are within the Asia region as yet.

Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto is about to begin.


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