When most people think about banks and saving for the future they think of finances. But if the future is going to be as rich as we are today, we need to broaden our horizons, and consider saving for the future in a whole new light. The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is doing just that.

What is a seed bank?

A seed bank is a vault kept at low humidity and cold conditions, around -20°C. In these vaults are jars filled with seeds from different plant species. Numbers and amounts vary from one seed bank to another. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is the world’s largest seed bank project – at the time of writing the MSB held 2,200,964,170 seeds from 37,614 species, collected from 189 countries!

Why do we have a seed bank?

Think of a seed bank as a form of insurance, a way of maximising the number of plant species we can save from extinction. This is more essential now than ever before. Globally it's estimated that one in five plant species are threatened with extinction.

Plants are under threat from many factors:

  • habitat loss
  • climate change
  • pollution
  • pests and diseases.

The rate of their impact is also increasing, leading to an ever greater risk of an incremental and catastrophic loss.

How are seeds selected and collected for the seed banks?

Projects, volunteers and experts all over the world are out in the field collecting seeds and then paying them into the banks. The seed banks follow rigorous collection criteria to make sure the best seeds are collected and stored at the bank.

Many different projects contribute to the seed bank and we are one of the partners contributing to the UK National Tree Seed Project. This project was set up by Kew to protect our native tree species from extinction, and is generously funded by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery and supported by volunteers.

More than 1,000 seed banks exist around the world. Each of these banks will send out a proportion of its most valuable seeds to a second seed bank as a precautionary measure, just in case something unexpected should happen to the original seed.

How long will the seeds survive in a seed bank?

The seeds stored in these vaults can theoretically remain dormant for hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on the species. Nothing like this has been attempted before though, so these predictions can only be based on models.

There are a few reports and examples of ancient seeds germinating from seed found in pyramids and ancient palaces. However, there are very few examples of this, so little real data exists on seed longevity. Until the first seeds being stored actually reach 1000 years old we will only have a model to rely on! The best prediction suggests that at the very least seeds will survive for 150 years in the vaults – but hopefully much longer.

What are the seeds used for?

Seeds stored at the bank may be owned by the collectors or the curators, and the owner will have the final say on the use of the seeds. Some banks store seeds only related to agricultural crops, as an insurance policy against any genetic loss in our food varieties.

Others only hold seeds from rare species and may be very selective on what these seeds are used for, or hold many seeds and have a wider remit as to what the seeds can be used for – from restocking populations to research projects and plant breeding programmes.

Want to know more about seed banks?

The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at Wakehurst, Sussex is open all year round for visits. Alternatively, if it's too far to travel to you can visit the MSB web page for more information on how it collects and preserves seeds, as well as discovering more about the long-term international goals and partners.

Learn more about seeds and identification