Protecting Scottish trees and herbs for the future at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has collected seeds from 14 trees and 29 conservation priority herbs this year, to help deliver Scottish species into the UK National Tree Seed Project and the UK Flora Project. Both projects aim to protect British plants and are coordinated across the UK nations by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), with funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

With the co-operation and support of landowners and volunteers, the projects are working to increase the diversity of British native plant species that are collected, seed banked and then made available for wider use. Collected seeds are processed and stored at the MSB, which already stores seed from over 30,000 plant species from across the globe.

The collections will serve as insurance in case species are lost from the landscape. But they also provide seed material for current research needs, such as testing for disease resistance and to increase our understanding of the biology and ecology of British plants. Seeds collected from trees form the UK’s first national collection of this type.

RBGE staff and volunteers have been searching for natural, non-planted plant populations to ensure that all collected seeds are local origin and genetically diverse. The first collections started in June with elm trees, and finished seasonally with holly in December. RBGE staff and volunteers have worked together to ensure that more than 200,000 seeds have been collected.

Dr Aline Finger, conservation geneticist and RBGE project Co-ordinator, explained: “RBGE has a wealth of experience working with rare Scottish plants and the partnership with the MSB is a perfect opportunity to strengthen our conservation efforts by storing seeds for future needs. We are particularly excited in managing to find seeds from extremely rare species such as the Marsh Saxifrage. This plant rarely sets seed because of the effect of overgrazing, and it is therefore a great success to have its seeds stored safely at the MSB for future conservation work.”

Dr Markus Ruhsam, RBGE plant molecular ecologist, added: “It can be quite challenging to collect seeds in adverse conditions the Scottish weather is likely to throw at you. Although we were lucky most of the time in terms of weather and midges, I particularly remember trying to find a small alpine plant in gale force winds gusting to more than 60 mph at 1300 metres on top of Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms. Even if I had been able to locate the plants I wouldn’t have been able to collect any seeds, as the seed bags would have been instantly shredded or blown out of my hand.”

Clare Trivedi, UK National Tree Seed Project Co-ordinator at Kew Gardens, said: “Building up our seed collection of the nation’s favourite and most important tree species is a vital step in combating the multiplying pests and diseases which threaten to alter our landscape dramatically. We are delighted that RBGE is supporting this project to help us ensure that seeds from across the UK are collected and conserved.”

The UK National Tree Seed Project launched in May 2013 with the aim of securing genetically diverse collections of UK native trees and shrubs. The species target list takes into account factors such as the species conservation status, its prevalence in the landscape and vulnerability to pests and diseases. The target species include many trees which underpin the UK’s wider plant and animal diversity, as well as supporting the woodland industry, tourism and recreation, such as ash, juniper, Scots pine, alder, beech, silver birch and yew.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)