Tucked into a mountainside in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, the Global Seed Vault stores the seeds of tens of thousands of plant varieties.
Here, where it’s incredibly cold, they won’t sprout or rot, and they’re stored as a safeguard against loss of different crop strains or even species. Yet these collections aren’t just last-resort security against some Mad Max-level apocalypse – they also prevent everyday species loss.
“When ‘new, improved’ varieties come onto the market, old varieties are lost, and that’s because people don’t grow them anymore,” says retired Meredith College biology professor and botanist Janice Swab, who visited the so-called “doomsday” vault last summer.
Yet the Svalbard seed bank is one of many seed banks worldwide. They’re not all hidden above the Arctic Circle, either; there’s one in Maryland, and some are in the American West. Swab will explain the value of these seed-filled vaults during the Friends of the Arboretum lecture at 7:30 p.m. March 10 at Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum.
We spoke with Swab about seed banks and what gardeners can do to help combat the loss of rare plant varieties. Her answer to the second question was short and simple: grow them.
Q: Why do people need to know about seed banks?
A: It’s really the seed banks that stand between us and disaster in terms of crops and crop varieties. There are seed banks all over the world – there are thousands. The ones in the more developed countries, they have more resources and they’re better cared for and they do a lot of collecting.
The whole point about crop diversity and the whole idea about seed banks first came about in the Soviet Union from a man by the name of (Nikolai) Vavilov. All botanists and people who care about seeds know about the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad. It still exists today, and some of their seeds are backed up in the Svalgard collection. At one time, it was the most valuable seed collection in the world.
Q: What do seed banks in the United States look like?
A: A concept of a bank is, you put money in and you just leave it there and whenever you’re ready to take it out, you take it out. That’s not the way a seed bank is because a seed bank is living. Those seeds are living, and they have to be taken out every so often and planted and refreshed. There are seeds that have lived for hundreds or thousands of years, but that’s not the usual. That’s one of the reasons they keep them in a very dry environment, in a very cold environment, whether it’s in Beltsville, Maryland, or Fort Collins, Colorado, or wherever it is. If they get warm, if they get wet, they, of course, will rot or they will begin to grow.
In North Carolina, there’s a new initiative. It’s rather long and complicated, but the N.C. Botanical Garden (in Chapel Hill) is part of an endeavor called Seeds of Success. What they are part of is a group that goes out and is collecting right now. Their main objective is to collect seeds from areas that are likely to be affected by hurricanes. (Hurricane) Sandy that dug up so much of the land on the coast a few years ago was really the kind of thing that made the garden and other organizations that are working with it begin to collect seeds in earnest that could be used in reseeding and recovering these areas when they are subjected to saltwater.
Q: What are some ways people can be involved in preserving plant varieties?
A: One of the best ways is to grow these. Instead of just growing what you go down and get in a seed packet at your local store, exchange these varieties with organizations like Seed Savers Exchange. As far as I know, it is the largest. They will send you their catalog, and they’ve got thousands of varieties that you can choose from. You can be a part of that exchange and keep a lot of those varieties going that will otherwise disappear. It was first organized in the ’70s. I had been living in the Soviet Union, I’d been working and living there, and I remember giving my father some Russian varieties of various vegetables. He had so much fun growing them out and exchanging the seeds.
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Retired Meredith College professor Janice Swab is delivering the Friends of the Arboretum lecture on “The Value of Seed Banks” at 7:30 p.m. March 10 at the Ruby C. McSwain Education Center at JC Raulston Arboretum, 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh.
Cost is $5 for the public; free for Arboretum members, N.C. State University students with identification and N.C. State’s Department of Horticultural Science faculty and staff.
Info: 919-515-3132, jcra.ncsu.edu