The Frozen Garden: Securing Seeds for the Future
The Berry Botanic Garden and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region

A man and a woman collecting Astragalus peckii seed.
Collecting Astragalus peckii seeds. Photo by Andrea Raven.

Two hands holding Lomatium bradshawii seeds.
Collecting Lomatium bradshawii seeds. Photo by Andrea Raven.

Berry Botanic Garden Seed Bank freezer.
Berry Botanic Garden Seed Bank freezer. Photo by Ed Guerrant.

Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus seedlings.
Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus seedlings. Photo by Andrea Raven.

During hard times, it can be a comfort to know that you have money in the bank. Likewise, for land managers and concerned citizens, it can be a comfort to know that there is genetic material secured in a seed bank. Instead of saving cold cash, botanists around the globe are saving seeds and depositing them into cold storage. Forest Service botanists work in partnership with botanic garden professionals to cultivate frozen gardens: seed banks can serve as a key part of efforts to conserve wild plants.

Seed banks serve as a complement to on-site care of rare plants and habitats. Stored seed can enhance restoration efforts and make the critical difference between extinction and conservation in the wild. Botanists collect genetically representative samples from vulnerable wild plant populations. Seeds are transported to a botanic garden, carefully processed, and then placed into heat-sealed foil laminate bags for long-term frozen storage. Seeds can be withdrawn from the bank in order to conduct conservation-related research or grow plants for a reintroduction. Struggling wild populations can be strengthened by the addition of new plants. Perhaps more important, when a population goes extinct in the wild, there are no options available for their conservation unless there is stored genetic material.

The Pacific Northwest is home to two seed banks that focus on securing rare native plants: The Berry Botanic Garden in Portland, Oregon, and the University of Washington Botanic Gardens in Seattle, Washington. Each garden is a participating institution of the Center for Plant Conservation with a primary mission of working within an integrated conservation community.

Since 1983, The Berry Botanic Garden has been working to cultivate a very special frozen garden, the Seed Bank for Rare and Endangered Plants of the Pacific Northwest. Currently, more than 14,000 accessions (sets of seeds) containing almost 3 million seeds have been secured. An accession can contain more than ten thousand seeds or only a single seed. Those seeds represent 350 of the region’s most vulnerable plants, including all of Oregon’s extant federally listed and state listed plants and many of Washington’s, Idaho’s and California’s listed plants.

Partnership between the Forest Service and The Berry Botanic Garden has resulted in a significant contribution to Berry’s seed bank. Botanists from all National Forests in Oregon have deposited seeds of rare native plants into the frozen garden, as have botanists from National Forests in Washington, Idaho and California. More than a third of the accessions in our frozen garden contain seeds from Forest Service lands. Over half a million seeds in those accessions provide an “insurance policy” for more than 100 rare plants under Forest Service management.

In this time of global climate change, such partnerships are critical. Many plant communities are dynamic and some are or will be adaptable to changing conditions. Certain plants, however, are more vulnerable to environmental changes. Such plants include those with inflexible physiological responses to climate characteristics, plants with infrequent reproduction, long-lived plants, plants with poor dispersal abilities, plants with restricted ranges, plants that are dependent on other species (for instance, pollinators), and plants with no options for relocation, such as those adapted to mountain top conditions. Locally, our situation requires quick action, as there is evidence that the American West is heating up faster than the rest of the country.

With this in mind, the Forest Service and The Berry Botanic Garden are taking the next step and focusing on seed collection of rare alpine plants. We will collect seeds from vulnerable population on two Forests in 2008: Willamette and Mt. Hood National Forests. Securing seeds off-site will provide land managers with additional options, should climate change or other factors affect those populations. With this partnership and others, we will continue to “grow” the frozen garden.