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Seeding the Future: In global conservation project, Wildflower Center preserves bluebonnets, prickly pear and other flora for generations to come

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So often, environmental conservation has to be reactive. Maybe it’s global warming melting the ice caps and threatening polar bears, or maybe it’s an endangered species of plant being threatened by overdevelopment. Too often, a situation has to become critical before capturing the attention of the public. However, conservationists are learning a more aggressive approach.

“The Millennium Seed Bank project is a fine example of what I call proactive conservation,” said Flo Oxley, conservation director at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin. “So much of conservation is reactive. ‘Oh my god, we only have 10 individuals of a particular species left in one population. We’ve got to do something!’ It sneaks up on us.

Proboscidea althaeifolia (Desert devil's claw) found in Presidio County, Texas
Proboscidea althaeifolia (Desert devil’s claw) found in Presidio County, Texas. Photo: Michael Eason.

photo icon of camera VIEW more native plant photographs online through the Wildflower Center’s Millennium Seed Bank Project and Native Plant Information Network.

“The Millennium Seed Bank project works to ensure future success,” she added. “It’s looking into the future, not the next day or week, but years and years ahead so that future generations will be able to enjoy the natural treasures that we’re enjoying. How sad it would be for a child a hundred years from now to not even know what a bluebonnet looks like or to never be able to experience a savanna ecosystem like we have here at the Wildflower Center because we weren’t smart enough to plan for the future.”

The Wildflower Center is the first non-governmental organization to be invited to participate in the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Project, a global plant conservation effort developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. The MSB Project coordinates work by more than 30 organizations in 20 countries worldwide. With a project budget of about $120 million, it is one of the most ambitious plant conservation initiatives ever, aiming to conserve seed from about 10 percent of the world’s plant species by the year 2010.

The Wildflower Center is charged with Texas seed conservation, which is no easy task in a state that is larger than some countries. It focuses its efforts on collecting and storing the seeds of common species of plants, not those that are endangered or threatened—which makes it part of the only global program of this kind. The goal is to try to collect 10,000 to 20,000 seeds of each targeted species. If they were to try to collect that many rare or endangered plants they could almost take a population into extinction.

Asclepias asperula (Antelope horns seeds) found in Travis County, Texas
Asclepias asperula (Antelope horns seeds) found in Travis County, Texas. Photo: Michael Eason.

video icon WATCH a video about the university’s Plant Resources Center and get a rare peek inside the largest herbarium in Texas—with more than a million plant specimens housed right in the UT Tower.

“We collect species that have restoration value,” Oxley said. “It might be a plant that is related to an important food crop and therefore it may represent an important potential food source. Perhaps it’s a plant that could have medicinal value—such as the Pacific Yew tree, which was considered a ‘trash plant,’ but was found to produce the breakthrough cancer drug Taxol. It might have energy potential. Maybe it’s a signature species that defines a particular region, like the cacti we find in the Mojave Desert or plants that might have Native American value with traditional uses we might not understand or know.”

“If anything were to happen later on, we would have those seeds banked and available for use,” said Michael Eason, botanist and conservation program manager at the Wildflower Center. “And if anyone ever wanted to restore a large tract of property, if enough seeds were collected from a certain region then they could use those seeds for a full landscape restoration.”

Some potential environmental threats include overdevelopment, ranching and agricultural activities if not managed appropriately, global warming and dramatic weather events.

“If a hurricane goes through a region and wipes out a population of plant species,” Eason said, “you could potentially reintroduce it. Often times, areas may be contaminated and require removing the first one or two feet of soil, which also removes the bulk of the seeds in the soil seed bank. All the seeds and plants have to be brought back in to restore the area.”

“There is also the threat of over collection in the wild by well intentioned people,” Oxley said. “Orchids are endangered because people think they are doing the plant a favor by going out, digging it up and moving it to their yard because they are going to protect it. Well, they’ve taken it out of its native habitat. They don’t have the right conditions. The plant dies and you’ve lost not only that plant, but the potential offspring of that plant. There is also over collection by some nurseries wanting to offer the stock to their customers. All of those things combined reduce populations in the wild.”

Michael Eason collecting Penstemon baccharifolius at Independence Creek Preserve, Nature Conservancy Property, Terrell County, Texas
Michael Eason collecting Penstemon baccharifolius at Independence Creek Preserve (Nature Conservancy Property—Terrell County, Texas). Photo: Sam Strickland.

The seed collection program is built primarily on the cooperation of private landowners and the hard work of more than 100 trained volunteers. Volunteers in the field who can watch and monitor the plants make it possible for the project to collect in more places at once. Many landowners get excited about the project and become seed collectors themselves. Another key part of the project is outreach and education, which emphasizes the importance of a diverse native plant population. Native plants play critical roles in the ecosystem, providing wildlife habitat, contributing to water quality, flood management and soil stability.

“It’s not as easy as walking out your back door and collecting seeds,” Eason said. “There’s a lot of time involved and the timing is important.”

The team starts by developing a target species list for the region. They review flora and field guides, talk to experts in the field, and use the herbarium at The University of Texas at Austin. They then cull through the list taking out anything that is not native. Eventually, they have a list of hundreds if not a thousand of species they can potentially collect. They scout for plant species on foot and by car. In West Texas, there are species of cactus that only occur on high rocky outcrops, so the seed collectors find themselves hiking along rocky cliffs. In East Texas, the Caddo Lake’s boggy setting offers different challenges and seed collectors scout by canoe. Collecting starts in February and March and may last until December.

Finally, the seed collections are brought back, cleaned and divided. Fifty percent of what is collected goes to Kew for storage. The remaining 50 percent serves as a backup, with 30 percent remaining at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Humble, Texas, and 20 percent going to the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo.

“We always encourage people to think globally and act locally,” Oxley said. “The Millennium Seed project is this old adage in action. By collecting seeds in Texas, we are acting locally to preserve our natural heritage as part of a global conservation effort. This is truly proactive conservation at its best.”

BY Michelle Bryant

BANNER PHOTO: Joseph A. Marcus.
Bean pod of Lupinus texensis
(Bluebonnet, Buffalo clover, Texas bluebonnet, Texas lupine).

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  Updated 13 January 2009
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