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Seeds of the Future


On an unusual old farm in New York City, workers are stashing away the seeds of the future.

In this unlikely place, researchers are putting the seeds from flowering plants and trees in a sleeplike state called suspended animation. Many years from now, other workers will rouse the slumbering plant embryos and plant them where they’re most needed.

These seeds are like the legendary Rip van Winkle, who fell asleep under a tree and woke up 20 years later. The small farm, called the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, is part of a global effort to save threatened plants and trees.

Around the world, native plants are being crowded out by invasive newcomers, which can hitch rides on boats, planes, and trains. Unaware of the consequences, people sometimes even plant invasive species because they seem useful or pretty at first.

Adding insult to injury, native plants have less room to grow now as a result of the growth and spread of cities. And global warming is making some places hotter, drier, or otherwise different from what native plants are used to.

Bittersweet peril

American bittersweet is a good example of a plant in peril and one whose seeds should be stored, says Steven Clemants, vice president for science at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City. The plant, a climbing vine with orange berries, is native to the eastern United States. But an evil twin called Oriental bittersweet is elbowing it out of the way.

People brought Oriental bittersweet to the United States in the 1860s because gardeners loved its fall display of yellow leaves and orange berries. Too late, they realized that the imported beauty was really a beast. The thorn-studded invader can wrap itself around trees and slowly kill them. Now, the transplant is threatening to replace its harmless native counterpart.

Experts used to think that it was impossible to protect big-city plants such as American bittersweet because growth space is limited in urban environments. Crowding increases competition between natives and invaders, and the aggressive aliens often win the battle.

But botanists are now teaming up and fighting back. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is trying to identify all of the estimated 1,000 plant species that grow within 50 miles of New York City. So far, workers at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center have gathered seeds from about 300 of those plants, says Edward Toth, the center’s director.

The seeds are being kept in storage compartments at the Greenbelt Center. Some are also being held as part of an international collection in Europe.

When planted in the future, these seeds could help restore damaged parklands and forests. Revived plants could also protect reservoirs of drinking water by filtering out pollution.

Sleeping seeds

The New York project is getting storage tips from the Millennium Seed Bank, a project in the United Kingdom run by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Michael Way, a coordinator with the British project, says that the most important step is to collect seeds at exactly the right time— when they are just about ready to fall from the plant.

Workers then store the seeds at a constant temperature of 59º Fahrenheit (15º Celsius) while slowly drying them in specially designed chambers. The temperature and humidity in the chambers is similar to that on a fall night in the southern Arizona desert.

After the seeds dry, they can enter a state of suspended animation when stored at a frosty –4ºF (–20ºC). That’s like January in northern Minnesota.

How long can chilled seeds survive? “There’s a huge variation between species,” Way said.

Seeds of the Future
Seeds of the Future

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