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Botanists Grow Plants from Historic 200 Year-Old Seeds

UK
20 September 2006

Against all expectations, seed scientists from the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's garden in West Sussex, have germinated 200–year–old seeds discovered in The National Archives – now growing into vigorous young plants.

 Liparia villosa is growing well

 Liparia villosa seedlings are doing well
Image © Elly Vaes/RBGKew

Botanists at Kew Gardens are used to planting seeds and letting them grow, but never before has the team been asked to use seeds that date back 200 years. This is just what happened, however, when Roelof van Gelder, a guest researcher from the Royal Dutch Library, found 32 different species of seeds in 40 small packets stored in a red leather-bound notebook within files held at The National Archives.

A Remarkable History 

The notebook was inscribed with the name Jan Teerlink, a Dutch merchant who is believed to have collected the seeds during a trip to the Cape of Good Hope in 1803. On his return journey, with a cargo of tea and silk, his Prussian vessel Henriette was captured by the British navy and all documents, including his notebook, were seized and passed to the high court of admiralty.

Some time later, the notebook was handed to the Tower of London and later still to the the National Archives, where it lay undisturbed until curators stumbled across it recently while carrying out cataloguing improvements.

Tricky Germination 

Germination was going to be tricky but not impossible once colleagues from the Millennium Seed Bank were called in to help.

A few seeds from each of the 32 species were sent to the Millennium Seed Bank. Of these, three of the species have germinated successfully.

The plants, including a shrub called Liparia villosa, a stunning pincushion-like flower called Leucospermum, and a type of acacia, are apparently now growing vigorously.

The survival of the seeds is all the more remarkable for the conditions they have endured since being collected during the Napoleonic wars.

‘This is a fantastic result,' said seed ecologist Matt Daws. ‘The seed was so old and had been stored in some dubious conditions, including a ship and the Tower of London. We really did not expect to get anything.'

The Liparia did particularly well, with 16 out of the 25 seeds progressing into plants. The acacia was a different proposition. "We only had two seeds to work with, and one of them turned out to have been eaten inside by an insect," recalled Dr Daws.

"What that means is we didn't have many options - it was a shot in the dark as to whether we'd be able to get things to work."

The Cape region is regularly visited by fire, which is a signal to germinate. So scientists mimicked the effects of fire by chipping off the hard coats of some seeds, and bubbling smoke over others. Even with this detailed preparation, 29 of the 32 species represented declined to germinate. 

The first seeds to germinate belonged to the legume Liparia villosa.  The second was labelled Protea conocarpa on the original packet, although Kew's scientists have now identified it as almost certainly a species of Leucospermum, which is of the Proteaceae family. Just one out of eight seeds of this species germinated.

The exact identity of the last of the trio remains a mystery, although the team know it to be a second legume, this time an Acacia. ‘We'll have to wait until it flowers to find out what species it is,' says Matthew. ‘If it's a tree, we may have a long wait.' This sample consisted of just two seeds. One germinated and is now half a metre tall. The second failed, and microscopic examination revealed old insect damage.

The seeds were carbon dated by Kew's science team to verify their age and Matt's colleagues are now extracting DNA from live and dead seeds to complete the study.

For Kew's scientists, this project has been of more than historical interest. ‘According to models of seed survival, even the toughest cereal seeds should have died after so long in such condition', says Matt. ‘If seed can survive that long in poor conditions, then that's good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions.'

 

Find Out More

Millennium Seed Bank Project
The Millennium Seed Bank Project is an international collaborative plant conservation initiative. This worldwide effort aims to safeguard 24,000 plant species from around the globe against extinction. It has already successfully secured the future of virtually all the UK's native flowering plants.

New Website on Access and Benefit Sharing
The Swiss Academy of Sciences just launched a new website on: 'Access & Benefit Sharing, good practice for academic research on genetic resources'.

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Seeds - Time Capsules of Life
Rob Kessler, artist, and Wolfgang Stuppy seed morphologist at the Millennium Seed Bank, have produced a lavishly illustrated natural history of seeds, their evolution, and dispersal. Enhanced electron microscope images give breathtaking detail, making this a great gift for the botanist in your life.
Seed Development and Germination
This text is intended for plant physiologists, molecular biologists, biochemists, biotechnologists, geneticists, horticulturalists, agronomists and botanists. It integrates advances in the diverse and rapidly-expanding field of seed science, covering both theoretical and applied knowledge.