Across Australia, scientists at seed banks are quietly working to protect our precious native plants, writes Sarah Pickette.
Protecting the diversity of Australian native flora.
Australia’s diverse native flora offer up all manner of weird and wonderful seeds, tucked into gnarled banksia pods or at the centre of fleshy rainforest fruits, transported by animal or air, germinating after rains or fire. “We have so many rare and distinctive plants in Australia that aren’t found anywhere else in the world, and I think we have a duty to collect their seeds so we can understand and protect them,” says Lydia Guja, seed conservation biologist at the Australian National Botanic Gardens’ National Seed Bank in Canberra. “Our native plants play some very important roles in their ecosystem; some provide food specifically for certain native animals while some are home to insects and other creatures, and others may have medicinal uses that we don’t yet understand.”
The National Seed Bank is a member of the Australian Seed Bank Partnership, which comprises 12 conservation-focused organisations that are all working towards the one goal: to collect, catalogue, conduct research on and protect Australia’s native flora.
‘WE WERE ASKED ABOUT A PLANT THAT HAD BECOME EXTINCT IN THE WILD… WE WERE ABLE TO SEND SEED AND REVERSE THAT SITUATION .’ L YD IAGUJA, NATIONAL SEED BANK
“At the National Seed Bank, we’ve done a lot of work on alpine sphagnum moss, which are tiny plants with some interesting characteristics – for example, we know they provide the only habitat in which the endangered southern corroboree frog will breed,” says Guja.
As our climate changes and more alpine fires occur, these plants may struggle to survive, she says. Studies in Europe show that alpine seeds are relatively short-lived when frozen for conservation, compared to seeds from eucalypts or banksias, which Guja anticipates may be able to survive being frozen for thousands of years. “We suspect that alpine seeds, even with high-tech handling and preservation, might only last decades, and this is important to know from a conservation point of view.”
While the goals of all of Australia’s seed banks are, by their very nature, forward-looking, ‘withdrawals’ are being made even today. “We often get requests from other researchers for seeds and from various botanic gardens looking to create interesting public displays,” says Guja. “Recently we were asked about a plant that had become extinct in the wild in WA. We were able to send over seed and help reverse that situation.”