PlantBank is seed saving on the macro scale, and for the next century rather than season. As one of the world’s biggest repositories of saved native seed, PlantBank had its official opening at the Australian Garden Mt Annan, NSW on October 11, 2013. It’s an amazing piece of bushfire resistant architecture surrounded by interesting landscaping and housing state-of-the-art drying, freezing and cryogenic preservation methods that will keep of bank of seeds from many of our most vulnerable plants for future generations.
Opened by NSW Governor Marie Bashir, PlantBank already houses over 100 million seeds from 10,035 different collections and 4,669 species, preserved in one of 3 types of cold storage: at 2-4 degrees C for short term, -18 to -20 degrees C, and cryogenic storage at -196 degrees C for some difficult species, like many orchids. Some plants either don’t produce seed or can’t have their seed frozen so these will need to have tissue culture specimens, fungal cultures or spores.
The aim is to have all Australia’s 25,000 native plants in long-term storage, creating a plant bank of genetic material from which future generations can withdraw to regenerate plants lost to new diseases and damaged habitat. Over 600 species in NSW are already listed as threatened. Of course preserving these plants in their wild locations would make a lot more sense but given our current predilection for land clearing and building, and the apparently lost cause of avoiding permanent species-destroying climate change, sadly that’s not going to happen. I wish our current governments would pay as much attention to these policies, or lack of them, that make us need a plant bank in the first place, and stop thinking its creation is sufficient to give them a big A+ on their environmental report cards.
But given that destruction and loss are inevitable and already happening, thank goodness for PlantBank. There are also other uses for seed in the Plant Bank than restoring wild populations, like research for economic potential, plant classification, to provide seed for forest and grassland restoration, and also to complement the National Herbarium. Herbarium collections favour plants when they are flowering and therefore do not usually contain seed specimens, so research at PlantBank will add greatly to our total knowledge of our native plants.
Plant seed varies greatly in how easy it is to store long term. Some, like Acacia are already so dry and have such hard protective seedcoats that they will still readily germinate after years of shelf storage. Others, like many of the fleshy-fruited rainforest plants, have to be carefully dried to a point where they can be frozen without ice crystal formation, and the seed is still viable. Many tests have to be done on new species to choose the most effective freezing and preservation methods to make sure that seeds really will germinate when they’re defrosted. As a backup to the PlantBank plan, we’re also sending duplicate seed samples to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens.
Chatting to Seedbank Officer Graeme Errington at the PlantBank opening was a great opportunity to learn about how seed is collected in the wild. Despite the attractive ‘olde-worlde’ looking seed boxes on display, Graeme assures me that field trips are really about timing, covering great distances to find the right plants, choosing the right seed collecting method and getting the seed chilled down quickly in portable fridges and then back to the plant bank within a few days. Graeme specialises in rainforest species and one of his priorities are some that are particularly susceptible to myrtle rust, like Rhodamnia. Fortunately we’ve had a good (dry) year this year for this very vulnerable plant to flower and set collectible seed.
One of the great features about PlantBank is how accessible it is to the public. The building has been designed so it’s a bit of a goldfish bowl for the staff, but school kids and visitors can watch seed cleaning and processing (aspirating to remove debris, or macerating fruit), view tissue culture collections, and see part of the cold storage areas.
NSW Minister for Environment and Heritage Robyn Parker said at the opening “The Australian PlantBank will enthral visitors like never before; it will take visitors on a journey to understand the ins and outs of plants. It has the capacity to make learning about plants trendy.”
The building’s design by BVN Donovan Hill sits beautifully within its endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland vegetation. Somehow it manages to feel exciting and energetic, but also very welcoming and restful. The entry courtyard with its polished mirror ceiling is both fun and elegant.
I also like the landscape design by 360 Degrees, with its concrete spears displaying a range of woodland shrub species. When I saw the garden yesterday, they were tiny new babies not long in the ground (and grown from locally provenanced seed and cuttings) but the landscape already looked good, which I think shows its design quality.
I also enjoyed the traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony by elder Uncle Greg and Clarence Slockee to cleanse both the area and the visiting mob, and particularly the Welcome to Country by Glenda Chalker, a local woman and deputy chair of the Tharawal Land Council. I’ve heard many of these speeches and often been made to feel like my love for and connection to our country was somehow second rate to what is felt by someone of Aboriginal descent. Glenda in contrast was very inclusive of all Australians and how much this country means to us all. I wish I had the text of her speech to share.
PlantBank is open to the public Monday-Friday 10am-4pm. Entry is free for a self-guided walk (there will soon be a smartphone app too) or a small fee for a behind-the-scenes guided tour. Children are especially welcome and there’s lots of interpretive and interactive stuff for all ages. I think it’s an engaging and thoughtfully curated display (not sure by whom, but full marks) and with the spectacular Australian Garden Mt Annan to explore too, the combination makes the trip well worthwhile.
About 75% of PlantBank’s $20 million funding comes from the NSW State Government, supplemented by major donations from corporates HSBC, BHP Billiton, the Ian Potter Foundation, and TransGrid, as well as substantial fund-raising by the Foundation and Friends of the Botanic Gardens and a host of individual donors.
[Interestingly, during the opening many were thanked and mentioned, including former Sydney RBG Executive Directors Tim Entwisle and Frank Howarth but not David Mabberley, who was head during the entire period of its 21 month construction. But maybe that wasn’t a childish expunging of the records – perhaps he just had nothing to do with this major project.]