Seed Bank: A Sound Investment
The green straw bale building that houses the San Diego Zoo’s Native Plant Seed Bank was completed in the summer of 2000, when the number of species collected could be counted on one hand. Since then, the collection has grown to over 350 species and seed banking (the collection, examination and frozen storage of valuable Californian plant species) has become an integral part of the Applied Plant Ecology division’s conservation goals.
Traditionally the banking of seeds has been associated with sustaining agricultural biodiversity – a practice that has been used for many centuries. Following in the footsteps of these age-old methods, the Native Plant Seed Bank focuses on the conservation of San Diego County’s 1,500 indigenous plant species and we’ve already collected over 20-percent!
In a few short years, our researchers’ dedicated and fastidious approach to seed collecting has resulted in this extraordinary level of plant diversity, the first to be achieved by a zoological botanical garden based in a conservation research facility.
Despite these noteworthy achievements, the increasing rarity of San Diego habitats means there is still much to do. Having already captured an impressive level of local plant diversity, largely common species of great restoration significance, allows us to increase our focus on rare and threatened species.
San Diego County has over 150 species of conservation concern, including the iconic Torrey Pine, a species with seed already secured within our seed bank freezers. We hope to extend this long-term conservation protection to all of the species of concern.
However, a plan of this magnitude cannot be realized without the help of collaborators. Currently, we are working in partnership with local land managers and government agencies to conserve the most rare endemic flora. These efforts also contribute to the California Rare Plant Rescue initiative, a large-scale collaborative effort with other seed banks and botanical gardens based throughout California to bank and conserve rare and endangered species’ seeds statewide.
In our goal to conserve rare and threatened species, we also work with the spectacular plant collections within the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park (which are more valuable than all the animals at the Zoo and Safari Park combined). Collected seeds from rare plants within our collection are also being banked as an insurance policy in case of future losses. Such banking (undertaken alongside regular propagation of these rare seeds) can be incredibly important for the survival of the species. For example, Catalina mahogany Cercocarpus traskiae exists in only a few botanical gardens and the wild population of a handful of individuals on Catalina Island is struggling.
From relatively small beginnings, the Native Plant Seed Bank has grow in size and stature. We have banked the Safari Park’s enchanting and peculiar boojum Fouquieria columnaris and San Diego County’s petite and rare salt marsh birds beak. We have spent many hours cleaning the rare and the common, both important in conserving the botanical heritage of San Diego County. And the little straw bale building has been home to them all.
Stacy Anderson, Senior Research Technician