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Seed Questions and Answers

Science & Conservation
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Dustin Wolkis

Seed Bank Curator and Laboratory Manager

Seed Bank Curator and Laboratory Manager Dustin Wolkis is responsible for curating NTBGs seed bank and conducting seed conservation research. Dustin holds an MSc in Plant Biology and Conservation from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a PhD degree at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, focused on changing the seed banking paradigm using Hawaiian lobeliads as a model system. Dustin is also Deputy Chair of the IUCN SSC Seed Conservation Specialist Group.

Seeds Of Hope.

Seeds are full of hope. They contain the plant’s offspring ready to sprout under the right conditions. Seeds of endangered plants can be collected and stored in seed banks for the future. Seeds can be propagated in nurseries and the yield from those plants can be returned to the seed bank and the new plants can be planted back out in their natural environment.

Seeds are nutritious and provide food for many animals as well as many different food products for people. Some seeds are protected by toxic compounds that can sometimes become useful drugs to treat cancer and other illnesses. Seeds are symbols of fertility used in jewelry and rituals in many cultures. Seeds have even been used as currency in trade and to weigh gold and diamonds.

What is a seed?

Seeds are a really smart invention. They contain the plant’s offspring in a lunch box ensuring the new sprouting plant has lots of food to start off with. Botanically speaking, a seed is an embryonic plant enclosed in a protective outer covering, or seed coat. The formation of the seed is part of the process of reproduction in seed plants and requires fertilization of an ovule with pollen.
You can learn much more about seed biology Wikipedia

How does a seed know when to sprout?

Some seeds are dormant and wait around for the right conditions before sprouting. In colder regions, some seeds wait for warmer spring temperatures. In Mediterranean climates some seeds like Eucalyptus and pine kernels are triggered by the smoke from forest fires clearing off competition for sun and nutrients from older plants and trees. 

What are the largest and smallest seeds?

The double coconut or coco de mar (Lodoicea maldivica), is the world’s largest seed being as big as 0.5 m (20 inches) and weighing 15-30 kg (33-66 lbs). The double coconut can float across an ocean and will only sprout when it is exposed to rainwater ensuring it has arrived on a new beach. At the other end of the size spectrum orchids have the worlds smallest seeds, as small as dust or a period in a sentence, just think about the black seeds inside vanilla pods.

How do plants spread their seeds?

Seeds have many different ways of being spread around. Some seeds are spread by wind using hairs as sails or wings as helicopters or parachutes. Some plants like Impatiens can catapult seeds away. Other seeds are dependent on animals for transport either using hooks attaching to furry mammals or packing seeds into delicious fruits loved by both animals and humans. When a fruit is eaten by a bird or mammal, the seeds are passing through the stomach and can sprout where it lands in a new area.

How do plants protect their seeds?

In addition to a seed coat, many seeds contain toxic compounds to avoid being eating. Castor beans (Ricinus communis), contain the deadly poison ricin, which has famously been used in many murder cases. When making castor oil from castor beans, ricin is part of the waste produced. An even more poisonous example is the red and black rosary pea (Abrus precatorius) used hazardously to make necklaces. The rosary pea is an invasive tropical weed also in Hawaii. The toxic compounds used by plants to protect seeds and other plant parts can sometimes become useful drugs to treat cancer and other illnesses when used in the right amount.

Are seeds having other interesting uses?

Kukui or candle nuts (Aleurites moluccana) are highly valued by Polynesian cultures, who brought it along on their canoe voyages. The English name candlenut refers to the use of the shelled roasted oily seeds strung together in a skewer and used as torches. In Hawaii, kukui nuts are also used for both food, medicines, particularly as a purgative, and for making leis.

How long can a seed remain viable?

Scientists have been able to grow a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) from a 2000 year old seed found in an archaeological site in Israel. This area is too dry to grow date palms today, but maybe it was more lush thousands of years ago and maybe this old plant contain genes better adapted to this dry environment that could expand the opportunities for growing dates.

What is a seed bank?

A seed bank is a safety deposit creating a “genetic safety net.” A famous seed bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault safeguarding many countries crop seeds protected from natural disasters deep inside the Norwegian mountains on the isolated island of Svalbard. NTBGs seed bank and Lab contains over 16 million seeds mostly rare and endangered Hawaiian plants ready to be used for restoration projects. Many tropical and subtropical seeds such as Hawaii’s only native palm genus, Loulu (Pritchardia species), cannot withstand conventional drying and can therefore not easily be stored in seed banks. NTBGs scientists work on breaking the code of species whose seeds cannot be stored by conventional storage methods.

How are seeds used in rare plant restoration?

NTBG conducts fieldwork to monitor Hawaii’s many endangered plants. Our field botanists and conservation biologists record data about how the plants are doing, control invasive weeds, and collect seeds if possible. The seeds are sent to our seed bank for conservation storage and to our
nursery for propagation. If the seeds sprout well into new plants, they can be planted out again in their natural habitat, and some are kept as back-up collections in the botanical garden. Seeds can be recollected, thus continuing the cycle.

Our Collections

To learn more about our collections browse these pages. Some of our underlying databases are public. Access to the herbarium and library collections in the Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center for scientific or education purposes can be arranged. See contact information under each collection.

Public tours of NTBGs five gardens can be booked online. The Behind the Scenes tour, South Shore Kauai includes the nursery and botanical research center.

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