PS3020 is a BEES plant biology field course based in London. Over a packed four days, students visit a range of internationally-renowned institutions as well as several research centres managed by industry.
Day 2 – Wakehurst Gardens & The Millennium Seed Bank
by Christopher M. Doyle (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)
Similar to the previous day, today’s tour was divided into several parts. The morning consisted of a talk on Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), and a tour of how the seed bank operates. In the afternoon students were given a talk on how Kew grows, distributes and displays seeds followed by a guided tour of the management, establishment and zonation of the Gardens.
Plants are some of the most important organisms on our planet, with the majority of living things being dependent on them as either a food source or habitat. As a species, we rely on plants for food, medicines and recreational use (i.e. smoking tobacco, brewing alcohol or gardening). The MSB on the grounds of Wakehurst aims to preserve a vast catalogue of seeds form plants all over the world should they become endangered or extinct. There exists another seed vault in Svalbard, however, that vault is unmanned and stores only crop species, the MSB is a research and education facility and contains mainly non-crop species.
The preservation process involves drying the seeds to around 5% relative humidity and storing them at -20o C in underground freezers. This method allows most seeds to remain dormant for hundreds to potentially thousands of years. Certain species can not be stored this way and new techniques, including cryogenic freezing of embryos are being explored. With extinction rates at 1000 times the background rate, Kew aims to have secured 25% of the world’s bankable species by 2020.
Not only does the MSB store seeds, they have multiple laboratories and horticultural areas for germinating and growing seeds. When storing seeds, it is important to know that the samples are model specimens, uncontaminated and undamaged. The use of inspection methods, such as x-ray imagery, are often employed. Long-term storage may have certain effects on seeds and it is important to know how to germinate and grow each species, and many seed are tested out in the MSB gardens, not just for research purposes but also commercial distribution (Kew provides wild-type seeds for garden centres, botanical gardens and scientific facilities all over the world) and aesthetic display.
The botanical gardens on display to the public at Wakehurst are owned by the National Trust but used and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. First created in the early 20th century, they currently contain hundreds of plant species, from many different parts of the world. In the tour, it was explained how the gardens are arranged both for aesthetic and scientific value. Various beds have been set up to specific colour-schemes or seasonal themes and as entire areas dedicated to groups of plants from particular geographic regions, all growing together as they might occur naturally. There is a need for the gardens to have an appeal to the public, as they are no longer entirely government funded and must rely on external patronage in order to maintain previous levels of service and upkeep.
From just one day, it can be easily seen that a great amount of effort goes into the running of both the MSB and the Gardens. The achievements in both species conservation and horticultural excellence are the result of years of hard work and diligence from members of staff and volunteers that ensure Wakehurst not only grows, but flourishes.