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Seeds: mysterious encapsulations of our botanical life

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: July 21, 2011

Time warp: Some of the thousands of jars of neatly packed seeds in Kew's subterranean vault.

Time warp: Some of the thousands of jars of neatly packed seeds in Kew's subterranean vault.

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RENOWNED naturalist David Attenborough hails it as "perhaps the most significant conservation initiative ever".

He was evidently describing something rather special. And it is – Kew Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.

Some of the facts and figures make for bewildering reading. Fact is, though, that in just ten years more than 3.5 billion seeds from nearly 25,000 species have been collected and stored.

When Prince Charles opened the seed bank in 2000, he described the project as the "Bank of England of the botanical world". And, he reminds us ruefully, the need for it has continued to grow.

A not-so-happy fact: It is estimated today that more than 20 per cent of all plants – around 76,000 species – are threatened with extinction as their habitats shrink.

A new book, The Last Great Plant Hunt, charts the history of Kew's seed bank and the subsequent formation of a partnership, a global network that continues to prosper.

From a personal perspective, I have always relished the "adventure" of growing plants from seed. I collect seed from my own garden in the hope – albeit unlikely – that one of them may produce a shape or colour that's different from its parents.

I am also aware that, while some seeds may stay viable for several years, others will perish in months or less. Botanists readily admit they still do not know the lifespan of some seeds. As to Kew's subterranean seeds themselves, they are stored in airtight glass jars in vaults at a constant temperature of minus 20C.

Kew's next milestone is to have a quarter of the world's plant species stored as seed by 2020.

Until then, settle back and absorb this 192-pager which takes us across the globe – from scouring Chile's hills for endangered botanical bounty and restoring habitats in South Africa, the Middle East, Australia and the US, to understanding how seeds rely on seasonal shifts. Not forgetting a clutch of amazing plant and seed facts.

The Last Great Plant Hunt is by Carolyn Fry, Sue Seddon and Gail Vines and published by Kew Publishing at £28. Also available at kewbooks.com

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