Words by Alice Whiting
Deep within a mountain on a remote Norwegian island, home to polar bears and arctic foxes, lies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a seed-storage facility, with the potential to house 2.5 billion seed samples from crop collections around the world. The perfectly monitored, frozen environment that the seeds are stored in means that samples of millions of seeds are secured for future generations, as a final back up.
The practice of seed banking is an incredibly important plant conservation practice. Although there are many seed banks globally, the location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault means it can withstand potential drastic changes on earth, aiming to protect and house the world’s most diverse collection of food crop seeds and offering insurance for the world’s future food supply.
The efforts to preserve seeds around the world demonstrates the importance of them for our future. However, many of us open up a seed packet, place a seed in the soil and excitedly wait for the plant it will transform into, without giving much thought to how seeds work and where they have come from.
A closer look at seeds
If you’ve ever planted vegetable or flower seeds you will know they are incredibly varied in size and shape, ranging from the tiny, dust like 0.1mm size of an orchid seed, to a 30cm wide double coconut (Lodoicea maldivica) seed. Most have a seed coat, a plumule and hypocotyl which will become the shoots and stems, and then a radicle which will become the root. There is also the cotelydon which is the food storage, all tucked away inside each tiny capsule.
Most seeds go through a period of dormancy, when they show minimal metabolic activity and growth while they are waiting for favourable conditions. Specific factors need to occur before a seed will respond and germinate, most often these are changes to moisture content and temperature, but some need fire or freezing conditions before they are released from dormancy.
Once seeds have found suitable conditions for germination, they have the amazing ability to know which way is upwards from within the darkness of the soil, due to a process called ‘geotropism’ and their response to gravity, before light takes over and guides the plant upwards.
There is also the issue of how long seeds stay alive, which is called seed ‘viability’. Seeds from different species have different viability, for example, seeds from weeping willow (Salix babylonica) are only viable for a maximum of 4 weeks, so if they do not germinate in this time, they will die. Seeds from other plants such as the Docks weed (Rumex spp.) contain a chemical that stops decay, so they can remain alive in the ground for over 50 years. The oldest seed germinated is 2,000 years old, from a Judean date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), which was found in caves from an excavation in Masada, Israel in the 1960s.
Why you should save seeds
Seeds have cultural and traditional significance all over the world, and saving and sharing seed is an act that has been practiced for centuries. However, in our modern world, large corporations are starting to see seeds as a commodity, meaning farmers lose freedom to produce and save their own seed as they have done for generations. Changes in these cultural traditions and less diversity may mean seeds are less able to adapt to environmental changes and evolve with them. If you are able to, learning to save seed can be a really engaging process, and it’s fascinating to see the full life cycle of a plant.