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Seedbanking

The Australian PlantBank incorporates a large seedbank (formerly the NSW Seedbank). For those tricky plants that can’t be conserved as seeds, the Australian PlantBank provides alternative storage systems such as tissue culture or cryogenic storage at temperatures as low as -196°C. It is located in the heart of Australia’s largest botanic garden at Mount Annan and integrates with the huge living collections of Australian species.

The Australian PlantBank has been specially designed so visitors can experience the ‘journey of the seed’ and be inspired by the important conservation work of our scientists.

Many of the plants you see in the garden today began their journey as a seed collection. Seeds are at the very heart of a botanic garden. At the Australian PlantBank, we specialise in wild collected Australian native seed and have over 10,400 collections in the seed vault. Importantly, conserving our unique flora is a major focus at PlantBank, where we store and research seed of endangered plants as a safeguard against extinction. 

Staff at the Australian PlantBank collect and store seeds from common as well as rare and threatened plant species. Many different collection and processing methods are used. Each and every seed must be prepared correctly before it can be stored in the seed vault. The precious wild seeds are carefully dried, prior to sealing in foil packets for long term storage in the freezer at -20ºC. When seeds are properly prepared, many of our threatened plants can be stored for hundreds of years – as an important back up insurance for wild populations on the brink. The success of conserving seeds for the long-term depends on the collection of good quality seed, correct preparation of the seed for storage and maintaining the collections in dry, cold conditions. The colder the storage temperature, the longer the seeds will last.

Seeds for the future

The best way to conserve plants is in their natural habitat. However, conserving plants away from the wild can be useful for research, and sometimes necessary for their survival. Seed-banking is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to conserve plants. Seed collections are used for research, habitat restoration and, when necessary, to reintroduce threatened species back to the wild. Seedbanks have always been important resources for investigations and developments in agriculture, horticulture, medicine and other plant uses. Today, a seedbank’s most urgent purpose is saving plant species; helping to preserve the earth’s biodiversity.

Global seed conservation

Conserving plant species is a shared responsibility. Seedbanks around the world protect their collections by sending duplicate collections to other seedbanks. This spreads the risks associated with losing collections through disasters such as fire, theft or war. Duplicates of many of the Australian PlantBank seed collections are held at the Millennium Seed Bank in the United Kingdom.

What's in our bank?

The seed bank at the Australian PlantBank is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It holds over 10,400 seed collections of many of the 25,000 plant species that occur in Australia. Most of the seeds are from New South Wales species, and some are rare and threatened in the wild. We have one of the largest collections of Australian native seed, with over 5300 species held in the seed vault. Fifty per cent of NSW threatened plants are now held as seed collections in the PlantBank seed vault. 

By 2020 all New South Wales species will be represented either here or as living plants growing within the Australian Botanic Garden. The vault has the capacity to store this number of species many times over. It can also house large seed collections for use in the restoration of degraded habitats.

How long do seeds last?

Seeds of many wattle (Acacia) species are expected to last hundreds of years in storage. Other species, such as waratahs (Telopea speciosissima), may have a much shorter lifespan in storage - perhaps only 40 years. These shorter-lived seeds will need to be re-collected frequently. Some plant species, including rainforest plants with fleshy fruits, have seeds that cannot be dried and frozen for storage.

Dried to perfection

Seeds containing too much moisture will not survive the freezing process so they are prepared for storage by drying them at low humidity in a controlled environment room.  The dried seeds are packed in strong aluminium bags to protect them from air and insects. Once packed and labelled, they are ready for storage at -20°C in the vault's freezer.

The secret life of seeds

Many plant species reproduce by seed. Seeds come in many shapes and sizes, but inside each one is a tiny embryo, surrounded by structures ensuring the greatest chance of its survival. By studying how different seeds germinate and develop into adult plants, scientists can better understand how plants regenerate and survive. This knowledge helps us to produce more plant species for horticulture and agriculture, and assists in the restoration of damaged ecosystems. 

For some seeds, germination is simple; it is triggered by warmth and moisture. Other seeds have more complex needs, such as exposure to certain natural compounds or a sequence of different temperatures. To investigate the conditions needed by various plant species, seeds are germinated in special growth chambers that control temperature and light.

Sleepy seeds

Some plants have seeds that remain dormant for many years. These seeds are waiting for the right conditions to germinate. For some species it is as simple as biding their time through several seasons. Other seeds may need a series of events, such as fire followed by rain. Once conditions that favour germination for each species are identified, plants are propagated by creating these conditions inside the laboratory in the nursery.

X-ray vision

All seeds must be whole and undamaged to be of value for seed-banking. Newly collected seeds are X-rayed to make sure they have an embryo which is necessary for germination. An X-ray also helps detect unwelcome visitors - insects and their larvae that devour seeds from the inside.

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