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Inside the Hawaiian seed bank figuring out how to store the rarest seeds on Earth

‘We’re losing species right in front of our eyes’

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Visits to the seed bank at the National Tropical Botanical Garden begin with removing your shoes. The seed bank, on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, is housed alongside NTBG’s collection of 80,000 dried plant specimens and rare botany books in a building that can withstand Category 5 hurricanes. It does have a vulnerability, though: pests. Funguses or bugs — like booklice — hiding in a visitor’s soles could threaten the collections. For the same reason, anything that’s brought into the building — office supplies, furniture, books — is frozen for two weeks.

To the right of the foyer, where shoes are lined up against the wall, there’s a wooden door leading to room 116: the seed bank and laboratory. It’s a single nondescript room: one side is lined with long tables filled with lamps, trays, and machines; the other is lined with freezers. But this unassuming lab has a remarkable job: if Hawaii’s rare plants — some of the rarest in the world — stand a chance for survival, it’ll be because of the 3 million seeds stored here.

Seeds for display at the seed bank.

Clockwise from top left: the seed bank’s fridges and freezers; the seed bank and lab room; seeds sealed inside a square aluminum foil pack; seeds inside the germination chamber.

Hawaii has lost over 130 plant species since it was first inhabited, and today, it’s home to more than 40 percent of all endangered and threatened plant species in the US. That’s because Hawaii is an island ecosystem, where plant species have evolved for millions of years in isolation. These plants are extremely vulnerable — all that time they spent cut off from the rest of the world meant that they shed defense mechanisms or simply didn’t develop them. But when people came — first from Polynesia, now from all over the world — they brought weeds and animals against which the native plants are defenseless.

Dustin Wolkis, NTBG’s seed bank manager.

Seeds in a petri dish placed inside the germination chamber.

“Right now in the state, we’re in crisis mode,” says Dustin Wolkis, NTBG’s seed bank manager. “We’re losing species right in front of our eyes.”

Some species — like the native Kadua haupuensis, which has been ravaged by invasive pigs and goats — are thought to be extinct in the wild. But their seeds are safely stored at NTBG. If one day habitats are restored or managed so that invasive species are not a threat, these seeds could be replanted in the wild — even bringing some plants back from extinction. That’s where the seeds will play a role. (Of the 3 million seeds in the collection, 97 percent are from native Hawaiian plants.)

In the meantime, the seeds aren’t just sitting on the shelf doing nothing — they’re sprouted and grown into plants, from which new seeds are collected. That process means that the seeds at NTBG can be studied. Scientists are finding out the best ways to store them, and how long they can stay in stasis before dying. “Seeds are living things and they have an expiration date just like all other living things,” Wolkis says. “It’s my job to figure out what that expiration date is and push back.”

One of NTBG’s nurseries.

The seeds are collected by NTBG’s volunteers and botanists, who are known for rappelling from ridges and jumping off helicopters to reach Hawaii’s rarest plants in remote locations. When the seeds are brought in from the field, Wolkis and his team get to work to understand what kind of seed it is, and how it should be stored. (This depends on the number of seeds the bank has; if the bank receives fewer than 100 seeds of one species, no testing is done.) “It’s different for every species,” he says. To determine that, the lab analyzes the seeds to understand how much moisture they have, and then the seeds are dried just a little. Next, the seeds are put on a petri dish and placed inside a machine that looks like a fridge that allows researchers to control for temperature, as well as alternate between “light” and “darkness.” It’s called a germination chamber; seeds are left in there to see if a little root comes out of them, which means the seeds are alive.

If the seeds sprout, some more seeds of the same species are then dried a little bit more, and put in the germination chamber again. This is a process that’s repeated a few times to determine how much drying the seed can withstand. Drying is one way to extend a seed’s shelf life. Then, Wolkis tests if the seeds can survive sub-freezing temperatures, since cooling a seed is the other main way to push its expiration date. The seeds are sealed inside a square aluminum foil pack and put at negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit for three months. Then, it’s time to go into the germination chamber again, to check if the seeds are still alive. Seeds that survive this temperature and level of drying are hardy — like legumes, or possibly the seeds of the Ohiʻa tree, a native Hawaiian plant that has beautiful red, yellow, or orange flowers. Other seeds are more frail, and die when dried or frozen. Knowing which seeds are which is, of course, is crucial for preservation.

‘We’re losing species right in front of our eyes’

Seed Bank

To donate to the Seed Bank: Donate

The Hawaii Island Seed Bank is a public seed bank on Hawaii Island. It provides seed banking services for landowners, farmers, growers and agencies. Services include: seed storage, seed cleaning and germination trials for seed collections. It provides storage space for native Hawaiian species and agricultural crops in Hawaii. It is also used as a back-up storage facility for seeds from other seed banks throughout the State.

The seed bank provides services that are important for the proper storage of seeds. Seeds are cleaned from their skins or husks and dried to the appropriate moisture levels so they can be packaged and stored either refrigerated or frozen for 1-20 years. The seeds are then databased. The collections are housed in bins that are rented by the partner landowner, organization or agency.

Seed banking is a very important tool for conservation. Saving seeds for the future helps to mitigate projects when unforeseen problems arise such as drought, fire or bad seed collecting years. Partners use their seed for broadcasting seed, performing restoration work, creating living fuel breaks, and conducting research.

Seed banking provides land managers a stable resource that would otherwise fluctuate on a year to year basis. It also preserves genetic diversity that is critical for healthy species. It is one of the least expensive conservation tools. Seeds are small and many seeds can fit in relatively small storage spaces, yet they represent large quantities of plants and many species that will be available in the future.

The Hawaii Island Seed Bank was initiated by generous support from the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization and originally administered by the Hawaii Forest Institute. It is currently a program of Ka ‘Ahahui ‘O Ka Nāhelehele, and has received additional generous support from the State of Hawaii Grant-In-Aid program and from the Dorrance Family Foundation.

The Hawaii Island Seed Bank is housed at an off-grid facility in Kona, Hawaii. It’s storage facility is powered by a robust solar system with hydrogen backup. The backup for the hydrogen is a powerful gas generator. Thus, the seeds are in a green building and their temperatures are constant and safe with double power supply backup.

There is a modest yearly storage fee for partners. This provides a 2 cubic foot bin for the partner. The partners may deposit as many collections throughout the year as they wish. The storage fee includes drying the in-coming collections to the proper moisture levels for storage, packaging the collections, and databasing. The partners have access to their collections or data at all times. The seeds are solely the property of the depositor.

Seed Bank To donate to the Seed Bank: Donate The Hawaii Island Seed Bank is a public seed bank on Hawaii Island. It provides seed banking services for landowners, farmers, growers and ]]>