Conservation at its finest: RTGB Seed Bank

The Tasmanian Seed Conservation Centre (TSCC) at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) is a volunteer supported Seed Bank, working to conserve Tasmania’s floral biodiversity.

James Wood, TSCC Seed Bank Coordinator, said the primary role of the Seed Bank is conservation.

“It’s kind of like a Noah’s Ark, an insurance policy of sorts,” he said.

“The idea is to go out into the wild, collect mostly native seeds from good, healthy populations and sample from as many individuals as we can.

“This way, if these populations decline in the future, we can reintroduce them into the wild and restore any genetic loss to the population.

“We are trying to do stuff now, when we have the opportunities, rather than trying to take action later when its either difficult, impossible or not very effective.”

James said the Seed Bank also conduct a lot of germination research.

“It is an essential part of our program to assess viability and monitor it long term,” he said.

“Once we get seed securely banked, we will then take a sample and figure out how we can germinate it.

“Once we have completed this work, we will leave the seed in storage, come back to it in 10 years and retest it to make sure the collection is maintaining its viability.”

James said germination work can be challenging, given that all species germinate differently, and germination methods are variable given changing environmental conditions.

“Some plants which are extremely common, are incredibly difficult to germinate, and some plants which are really rare are really easy,” he said.

“Different plants use different strategies.”

Running germination tests at the TSCC involves the use of 13 different incubators, which run a range of temperature regimes to mimic different seasons and climate conditions.

The Seed Bank also use lights to mimic conditions so James and the volunteers can discover what the germination requirements are for the seeds.

“You can also collect the same species from the same population in different years and it’s germination behaviour can be different,” James said.

“The environmental conditions that the seeds experience as they develop impacts on their germination requirements.”

James said germination testing can take up to two years to run, because conditioning the species to germinate can take a long time.

“The long-term hope for this work is that the more information we get, we may be able to develop a framework where we can streamline the amount of testing we do,” James said.

“This way, we can get a successful result more quickly.”

In 2008, the TSCC were the first Australian Seed Bank to share their germination data online.

James said readily available germination data is helpful in knowing which germination methods are and are not successful.

During its time in operation, the Seed Bank has made a number of exciting discoveries.

“One of the earliest breakthroughs was resolving the germination of Davies’ Waxflower,” James said.

“Davies’ Waxflower (Phebalium daviesii) is an endemic shrub, which only occurs on a single river in St Helens. It was thought to be extinct until 1990 when it was rediscovered.

“When the plant was rediscovered, it was propagated in the RTBG nursery. Since then, environmental conditions have reduced the population to only 20 plants in the wild.

“In 2008, we made our first attempt to collect seeds from our nursery plants and ended up with 34,000 seeds.

“With this quantity, we were able to conduct extensive testing which was crucial, as Phebalium is in a family of plant (Rutaceae) notoriously difficult to germinate.

“Within global seed banks, less than 10% of Rutaceae collection have passed a germination test. Four years after that first harvest, we were able to get over 80% germination”.

James said one of the things the Seed Bank is hoping to achieve, is to get better collections of our native eucalypt species.

James is the only full-time employee of the Seed Bank. The rest of his staff are volunteers.

“The volunteers are very dedicated, they’re coming in half a day a week each week, which is a huge commitment,” he said.

“The vast majority of volunteers are retirees, who have a keen interest in plants.”

James welcomes new volunteers; however, he suggests that any volunteers come in with the expectation of staying with the Seed Bank for 12 to 18 months.

“It generally takes 6-8 months to gain the relevant knowledge and get into a rhythm, especially with germination testing.”

The Seed Bank will continue to run into the future and aims to collect and store seeds from all species across Tasmania.

“In Tasmania, we are still describing new species each year and understanding species boundaries and rediscovering species thought to be extinct,” James said.

“Tasmania is a huge target rich environment, almost everything you do is new knowledge and that is very exciting.”