Wakehurst Place - home to the Millennium Seed Bank

PUBLISHED: 15:38 13 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:55 20 February 2013

Wakehurst Place - home to the Millennium Seed Bank

Wakehurst Place - home to the Millennium Seed Bank

The 16th century mansion Wakehurst Place at Ardingly is the country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Its garden is internationally significant for its collections and its vital scientific research and plant conservation. Words: Judy Sharp

Wakehurst Place between Turners Hill and Ardingly is the country estate of The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a beautiful place for garden lovers to spend a day and a stunning setting for some spectacular events during the year.

But it also has a much seedier side, for Wakehurst Place is home to Kews Millennium Seed Bank, which currently houses samples of more than 30,000 of the worlds wild flowering plant species. Thats about 10 per cent, the objective is to collect and bank 25 per cent by 2020.

The programme started in the late 1960s at Kew and when the purpose-built Millennium Seed Bank was opened in 2000, an international programme of seed collection and banking was launched.

Vanessa Sutcliffe is a Training Specialist responsible for giving technical advice to seed banks around the world and training those who run them.

Her work is primarily with developing countries where banking seeds of the native flora is the priority, although countries such as USA and Australia now have active seed bank programmes too. Natural disasters such as drought, flooding and fires destroy vast tracts of land; wars destroy even more.

All over the world, native plants are needed to re-generate affected areas and literally bring them back to life.

It is possible that seeds will enable some plants to be brought back from extinction. Some 200-year-old seeds found in the notebook of a Dutch merchant were germinated at the Millennium Seed Bank and then propagated at Wakehurst Place in 2008. Three separate species have germinated including a Leucosperum from South Africa, that is now thriving, and some Acacias.

The importance of the Millennium Seed Bank cannot be over-estimated just imagine a world without seeds. No seeds means no plants or trees. No plants or trees means no fruit, no vegetables, no cereals nothing for humans to eat, nothing for animals or birds to eat. The food chain would break down completely. Estimates are that, worldwide, up to a third of all plants could be extinct by the end of this century: thats quite a challenge.

September is traditionally the time for gathering seeds. Getting in the seedy swing of things, Vanessa is organising the first Great Seed Swap at Wakehurst Place. Everyone is invited to bring along seeds from plants in their garden and swap them with seeds from other peoples gardens. Why? Because, quite simply, if we dont do our little bit, traditional, open-pollinated varieties of vegetables and fruit could die out.

Seed growers in the UK, as elsewhere in Europe, are governed by national and EU regulations dating back to the 1970s. These dictate that commercially-sold seeds are listed on a National List (and ultimately in the EU Common Catalogue). Such seeds give varieties more acceptable to large-scale growers such as tomatoes identical in shape, size and colour, and tough enough to withstand handling. But growers have to purchase new seeds each year to maintain genetic quality.

The seeds that gardeners buy in garden centres are often F1 hybrids from the lists approved by national and EU authorities.

The old, traditional varieties of flowers and vegetables grown in our grandparents gardens cannot generally be legally sold if they are not featured on the National Lists. That is why the Great Seed Swap is just that a free exchange of seeds among those who want to help preserve open-pollinated, heritage varieties that contain considerable genetic material and can adapt to changes in climate and growing conditions.

Helping Vanessa with the Great Seed Swap at Wakehurst Place on Saturday 17th September are the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library and Brighton & Hove-based Seedy Sunday, which has organised seed swaps for the last decade and is the largest programme in the country.

This will be a very seedy family day. Ethnobotanist, TV presenter and best-selling author James Wong will talk about under-used plants and exotic vegetables. Matthew Biggs from Gardeners Question Time will join Wakehurst Place specialists to offer advice and answer questions on everything from bee-keeping to seed storage. Chefs will create culinary delights using traditional heritage ingredients, workshops will show children where food comes from and theres more.

Seeds for swapping should be in bags with labels giving location and species: volunteers will do the rest.

This is not just another garden fte, this event aims to raise awareness of an issue that impacts every family in the land.

The typical English countryside is under threat, largely from change of use. Rural land is being taken for the construction of roads, houses and shopping centres. This destroys the plants natural habitat and, with it, the whole eco-system, from bees and butterflies to insects and small animals. If every family set aside a small garden bed for native UK plants, it would encourage the endangered bees and butterflies and help the rural eco-system to survive.

Complementing the Great Seed Swap, Robin Probert, Head of Conservation & Technology at Wakehurst Place, has announced a major new initiative. Wakehurst Place is to establish a UK Native Seed Hub to support the developing UK native seed industry and encourage the conservation and restoration of traditional plant species.

Wakehurst Place itself does not aim to be a commercial operation; rather it will make its extensive facilities and vast expertise available to growers. This will include research and development projects, training courses, and support material. The UK Native Seed Hub aims to increase the quality and diversity of native seeds available in the UK for conservation and landscape-scale restoration projects. As part of the plan, soil was broken at the start of June on a two-acre plot at Wakehurst Place dedicated to growing native UK plants.

Initially Robin and his team will be working closely with Keith Datchler and his Beech Estate near Battle, some 722 hectares encompassing one of the largest surviving areas of ancient meadow in the South-East. Keith Datchler and his colleague Dawn Brickwood are pioneers of wildflower and wild grass seed preservation and collection under the auspices of the High Weald Landscape Trusts Weald Meadows Initiative and they are, therefore, natural partners to Kews UK Native Seed Hub. From this local base, the programme will spiral out and will in time embrace all of the UKs critical habitats.

As Robin explained, developers in the UK now have to use native plants to restore land affected by major construction projects. He sees this as a positive move that will increase the demand for native species and local seeds, so the timing of Kews UK Native Seed Hub initiative is good.

Working closely with growers and sellers of native seeds and plants, he is sure the project will provide important support for a growing industry that will help to preserve the beauty and diversity of the United Kingdoms wild spaces for future generations.

So you see, Wakehurst Place probably is the seediest place in Sussex and what a vital job they are doing there!

The Great Seed Swap
Wakehurst Place, Ardingly, near Haywards Heath, RH17 6TN.
Saturday 17 September, 11am 5pm
Admission: 2 (garden entrance not included)
Further information: 01444 894067 or www.kew.org

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