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A peek inside Canberra’s hidden bank

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While others were packing precious photos and mementos during the summer bushfires, ready to evacuate if necessary, there was one person in Canberra packing eskies full of seeds.

These seeds are the insurance policy against the massive loss of vegetation (8.4 million hectares across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania) we’ve witnessed this summer due to climate change-related bushfires.

Tom North is Curator of the National Seed Bank (NSB), a small but vital service tucked away in the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG). The NSB is a quiet achiever. While worldwide climate change protests have been growing larger and louder, employees and volunteers at the NSB have been diligently collecting seed for conservation and research.

You wouldn’t even know it was there. It is hidden inside a modest 1960s cottage once occupied by the original curator of the ANBG. Where the kitchen and dining room once stood is now a fully-equipped laboratory with six germination incubators and three storage freezers (-21°C).

Next door is a drying room (15°C, 15% relative humidity) and in an old demountable house next door is an x-ray room and cleaning and packaging areas.

Credit: Gemma Farrell.

Tom says the NSB plays a critical role in the face of climate change. “Firstly it is a bank, ensuring that we secure seed of species under threat so that if we lose them in the wild we have the option of being able to go to the bank and germinate seedlings for return to the wild.”

“Secondly, our collections are a research resource. By having collections of key species from right across Australia, including threatened ecosystems such as Alpine areas, we have been able to assess what the likely impacts of predicted climate change is going to be on the plant species found within those areas. We have paid particular interest in investigating the impacts on recruitment under higher temperatures, shorter winters and the longevity of seed under different climate regimes.”

The NSB is literally a lifeline. All life on Earth depends on plants, from our oxygen, food and medicines, to our shelter, environmental health and ecosystems.

Tom’s job of collecting precious seed—which takes him to such far-flung places as Christmas Island, Kakadu National Park and Norfolk Island—is getting more difficult.

“With each passing year, the window of opportunity to collect is getting smaller and for some species producing seed in a drought year just doesn’t happen,” says Tom.

“Droughts also have an impact on the quality of seed that is able to be collected. Lack of water means seeds don’t mature fully and viability is low, meaning that we will have difficulty maintaining these seeds in the bank and we encounter poor results when we try to germinate them.”

Bushfires only add to the challenge. For example, the Mount Imlay Mallee (Eucalyptus imlayensis) is a critically endangered species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). It occurs in one isolated population on the upper slopes of Mt Imlay in south-eastern NSW. Tom says it is a species that is “very poor at seed production and hence recruitment of new seedlings is very low. The Mount Imlay Mallee could be a species that will be adversely affected by the bush fires that swept through south-east NSW.”

Currently, the NSB holds about 7,750 individual native seed collections from more than 3,500 different species, with a history of collections going back to the early 1960s.

Tom adds that the NSB is a key and very efficient tool at being able to save a large amount of plant genetic resources in a very small confined space.

“We work holistically to ensure that we have multiple strategies for saving plant species under threat—seed collection is only one of them. We are very lucky to have a well-qualified plant conservation team at the ANBG that has the knowledge and skills needed to be able to bring together a number of plant conservation strategies and tools to saving a species.”

It may very well be our own species.

Georgia Curry is a freelance writer and volunteer at the National Seed Bank.

Feature image: Gemma Farrell

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