We assess plant populations, work with land owners and appropriate government bodies to make seed collections from plant populations of native origin. We store the collections at 15% relative humidity and -20C. Collections can be revived for restoration or research and provide a national back up in case of environmental emergency, when the seeds can be grown out and native populations restored. Browse our seed bank collection here.
The land mass we now call Ireland became an island around 14,000 years ago. Separated by the sea from Mainland Europe plants on the island evolved independently. From a global perspective, we have a responsibility to preserve this unique natural environment.
At True Harvest Seeds we study our collections to discover differences between plants on this island, and their distant cousins overseas. Most Irish plants, as far as we can tell, are still close enough genetically to interbreed with imports.
The problem is; if we continue to import native species of NON-native origin, then we lose the island’s independently evolved species through hybridisation.
An example of the problem is the Irish bluebell and the Spanish bluebell, both beautiful. They hybridise readily, backcrossing randomly and easily. The result? All hybrids.
Our flora has developed within its own unique populations, with specific fauna that has evolved with it. This has given rise to species and sub-species endemic to Ireland, for example the Cryptic White Wood Butterfly (Leptidea juvernica) (Information from Wildflowers and trees of local provenance, ENVISION – community heritage project, 2014).
At True Harvest Seeds we make every effort to find populations that are far removed from cultivars or imported plantings from which to make collections from. This is easier in insect pollinated plants rather than wind pollinated plants.
There are about 1,400 species of wild plants in Ireland and around 1,000 of those bear seeds that can be banked. We estimate around 40,000 collections will need to be made to make a truly comprehensive and useful seed bank, with species from different terrains, areas and habitats across the geographical island.
Finding suitable populations
For our purposes, a population is: A group of individuals of the same species, capable of interbreeding, that occupy an area we can define.”
We talk to land owners, local people and site staff to find out the recent histories of populations of plants. It is with the kind permission of our land owners and that we are able to populate the seed bank.
Land owners very often get in touch with us. They are in a good position to know if a population is of native-origin.
- When working with species listed on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife Act, permission must be sought from DAERA.
- When attempting to work on land that is designated protected, assent must be sought from NIEA.
What’s in a collection
We use the methods taught to us by Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank to make our high quality scientific seed collections, so that they are suitable for long term banking. These methods include the seed collecting protocols developed by ENSCONET. ENSCONET protocols ensure the protection of the wild population.
Collections happen in two more phases after we have located a suitable population:
- When the plants are in flower we return to take a Herbarium Specimen, photographs and a sample for DNA testing.
- Later when the population is fruiting we return again to make the seed collection with data and more photos.
Timing is key for all our activities and having volunteers onsite throughout the season of a species, who monitor and report progress is particularly helpful.
The picture shows the final seed samples and how they’re stored inside the freezer at -20C, where they will be preserved safely for long periods of time. It is best practice to take seeds out of storage every 10 years and grow them out for a new seed population to re-store.
Assessing a population, is it ready for collection?
With effective monitoring we can see when the majority of the seeds are at their “Point of natural dispersal”.
We must find the right day because we make just one collection per year from any one wild population. We ask the land owner to monitor the progress of the plants in the populations that we have identified. Plant monitoring involves keeping an eye on the progress of the seed development looking for the seed’s point of natural dispersal.
It can be a tough call, to postpone an arranged collection because the seeds aren’t really ready yet, but it can be necessary as immature seeds don’t last long in the seed bank. Conversely if we wait too long the seeds may have fallen, rotted or become infested. Sometimes it’s better to wait until next year.
And the good news is; warm, dry, sunny days are best for collecting.
Making the collection
We collect no more than 20% of the seed available on the one day. This ensures we don’t harm the population going into the future. To get the best possible collection we want to sample as many individuals as we can, ideally 200.
We calculate the number of plants and seeds in our population and for a full collection we aim for 10,000 seeds. This can sound like a lot, but we abide by our 20% rule in all populations. Mostly however there are plenty of seeds and it’s just a bit of a calculation to do to limit the number of seeds to 10,000 whilst sampling from 200 individuals. Sampling this way helps gain genetic diversity in the collections.
We use cloth or paper bags to store the seed. We have to be careful with the seed after it’s been collected, hot cars and plastic bags are not suitable. Post harvest handling should be considered in advance. A dry, cool box with silica in it can be an answer to get the seeds back safe.