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The Seed Program at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Volume 2 Number 9 - December 1997
Michael Wall

The Garden's collections, educational, horticultural, research and graduate education programmes in systematic and evolutionary botany serve a diverse and both local and international audience. The seed collection at RSABG totals approximately 2,300 accessions. These accessions, with very few exceptions, are made up of species originating from and collected within the California state political boundaries and adjacent floristically associated regions.

Ownership and Purpose of Seed Collections

In cooperation with local federal and state regulatory agencies, RSABG has historically accepted seed collection donations of rare or endangered species as part of our conservation programme activities. In addition, seed collections resulting from research projects involving state or federally listed plants are often donated to the RSABG Seed Program as per agreement between the researcher and local and regional resource management authorities. The Garden also initiates rare plant germplasm collections as part of its agreement and association with the Center for Plant Conservation, a consortium of 28 botanic garden member institutions. These conservation collections consisting of rare, gene pool representative germplasm collections, serve to prevent extinction and as a source material for restoration and research projects.

Currently all collections accepted into the collection at RSABG are considered the property of the Garden. Contractual collections are stored under contract to and remain the property of outside agencies or organizations. Presently all of the contractual collections at RSABG have been initiated by commercial environmental enterprises as part of a mitigation project. These collections are subject to fees for services rendered.

Use of and Access to Seed Collections

The Garden's documented collections exist primarily to support the work of botanic gardens, conservation, research, and educational institutions. To a limited degree, seed of non-sensitive species are also available to Garden members who benefit the Garden's programmes through their membership. Undocumented collections, collections of unknown wild parentage from plants cultivated and harvested at RSABG serve horticultural, educational, and gift shop programmes.

Access to a majority of our conservation collections is restricted under state or federal law. These seed collections, designated as 'restricted' on our web site electronic seed index, can be made available for research purposes once permission is granted from state or federal regulatory agencies. Plants which result from seed testing are often incorporated into the living collection which benefit our public education and research programmes.

The propagation of rare or endangered species for sale or distribution outside the botanic garden community has been a matter of considerable debate for some time. Currently RSABG, in cooperation with other botanic gardens, local state and federal authorities, the California Native Plant Society and the Center for Plant Conservation, is in the process of initiating discussion to define issues, prescribe resolutions, and set policy on this concern.

At RSABG, horticulturally popular rare or endangered taxa are frequently propagated vegetatively or from seed collected from plants in the living collection. Plants resulting from these propagations are sometimes offered to the public through the garden's annual plant sale or gift shop programmes. When a 'restricted' species is requested through the electronic seed index, and wild-collected material is not required, garden-collected material is sometimes made available.

What Technical Standards are Necessary for Botanic Garden Genebanks?

Currently the Garden primarily follows the processing and storage standards as recommended in the Center for Plant Conservation's publication Guidelines for the Management of Orthodox Seeds (Wieland, 1995) as well as those prescribed by the United States Department of Agriculture National Seed Storage Laboratory.

After cleaning, orthodox seed collections are dried to equilibrium at 10ºC in a growth chamber which has been modified with a Munters Rotaire dehumidifier which is set to maintain the relative humidity at 34%.

Presently all seed collections are stored in freezers at -18ºC. Until recently the more common species in our collection had been stored in a glass front (shop-type) refrigeration unit. This arrangement and storage condition led to fungus problems on the bottles and was thought to be a costly and inefficient use of energy. Many of these accessions intended for 'medium term storage' were already 15 years old and not knowing how long the collections would be in storage, it was decided that it would be advantageous to keep both collections in chest-type freezer units in 'long-term storage' conditions. Collections of rare taxa are packaged in plastic/foil laminate, heat sealed, 'Kew' bags. For ease of access documented collections of more common taxa are stored in double-seal plastic bottles.

Intermediate or suspected recalcitrant taxa, the more transitory undocumented collections, and short-term documented collections are stored in glass or plastic bottles in a standard refrigerator with desiccant capsules. RSABG does not attempt to store non-orthodox seed.

To determine viability and germination protocols, initial germination tests are presently being conducted on all new documented accessions. Unfortunately, in the past, this important process for monitoring species storage tolerance was only conducted on a limited number of the Garden's collections. These test records and older nursery propagation records exist but mostly on paper. For institutions with large diverse collections and limiting programme resources, keeping up good testing, monitoring, and data management programmes to properly curate conservation collections can be a daunting task.

Funding and Support

RSABG is founded and supported as a privately funded, non-profit institution which relies primarily on endowment income for the general operating support of its programmes. The Seed Program at RSABG is staffed by a Seed Curator who is assisted by Garden volunteers. Presently conservation activities other than seed storage are coordinated by staff in the Garden's research and horticultural programmes.

In the western United States, continuing environmental pressures and resulting efforts to protect or recover endangered species and habitats have dramatically increased conservation agencies' need for seed storage services. In response, over the past two years, the Garden has expanded and invested heavily in its seed storage facilities. In 1994 a new seed processing and storage facility was established through the support of the Fletcher Jones Foundation. To honour and recognize the Foundation's support for conservation, the new facility was named The Fletcher Jones Education Center for the Preservation of Biodiversity. This commitment by the institution has put the Garden in the position to play an important role and provide a valuable service in the conservation and study of rare and endangered plants.

The institution is however concerned about the commitment and costs associated with the operation of a long-term storage seed banking programme. Funding programme expansion without compromising other existing programmes is another serious concern of the institution. In order to maintain its commitment to the Seed Program, the Garden is seeking to initiate financial support from those agencies and organizations who as part of their conservation activities utilize the services available through the botanic garden's seedbanking programme.

Issues which Affect Seedbanking Programmes

Listed below are some questions and concerns which this institution (RSABG) has either asked itself or which have come up in discussions with associated institutions and agencies.

a) Should valuable germplasm collections be held for long-term storage at privately funded botanic gardens or would the collections be better kept at existing government facilities? Because of mutual interests and historic cooperative relationships between botanic gardens and state and federal agencies, here in California, there is a strong preference to have seedbanking provided by local botanic gardens.

If an institution seeks funding to support their seed storage programme:

b) What are the services worth? Should a standardized fee schedule be established? Would this fee be the same or different for commercial enterprises requiring the same services?

c) If back-up collections are stored at another institution will they be funded as well?

d) What happens and who is responsible when a collection is losing viability and must be regenerated? Do institutions charge for regenerating a seed collection?

e) What kind of funding sources are available?

Other issues and needs:

f) What conditions could or should be placed on collections?

g) How long does the institution want to obligate itself to store a given seed collection?

h) If an institution can no longer support a seedbanking programme who will accept the collections?

i) What are the responsibilities, liabilities in seedbanking?

j) A list of species and their storage tolerances is needed

k) The exchange of research information on germination protocols of wild species is needed.