National Treasure

While efforts to bank native plant seeds are expanding, habitat loss and global warming are threatening thousands of flowering species

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Jun 01, 2005

An employee at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation punches a security code into a keypad and slides open the heavy steel door to "the vault," a four-story freezer where the federal government banks seeds from the nation's most prized plants. The vault's thick concrete walls are engineered to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and explosions. Protected like national treasure, roughly a billion seeds from 5,000 species are stored in giant filing cabinets that rise overhead. Formerly named the National Seed Storage Laboratory, the facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, could be called the Fort Knox for seeds.

An inventory of the vault's contents, however, reveals a gap in the nation's seed collection. Some of the most precious plants of all--threatened and endangered wildflowers--are missing. They haven't been stolen; rather, less attention has been given to securing samples of native plants--even vulnerable species--than to crop plants. Fewer than 300 imperiled native U.S. plants were being held in the nation's premier seed bank when I visited last November. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the vast majority of the lab's seeds are "food, feed and fiber," agricultural crops comprising everything from apple and tomato varieties to wheat and corn samples to cotton and timber farm trees. "Storing rare and endangered species," explains Loren Wiesner, director of storage, "is not our primary mission."

To make up for this shortcoming, a major effort is underway to beef up the nation's collection of endangered native plants and wildflowers stored at Fort Collins. The Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, has been working for roughly 20 years to collect seeds from 889 federally endangered or threatened U.S. plant species, and plans to gather from as many as 2,000 U.S. species of conservation concern. So far, collectors from the center's 33 partner botanical gardens nationwide have harvested seeds from 629 species on private and public lands.

Banking native wildflower seeds is important for several reasons, says Tom Grant, manager of research programs at the Denver Botanic Garden. "In case of extinction, the genetic makeup of a species is preserved. Secondly, the seeds can be used for restoration projects."

This summer, the CPC's experts will gather seeds from 118 species of concern in more than 227 sites in the National Park System. "We collect very slowly," says CPC Director Kathryn Kennedy, "so that we don't harm a population." Collecting is a meticulous process. The CPC sends in as few people as possible to harvest seed capsules by hand to ensure plants are not trampled. They move across a wide area in an effort to include a high degree of genetic variation and place the seeds in moisture-proof paper bags. Upon returning to their labs, CPC experts examine and count the healthy seeds, then refrigerate or freeze them.

When a good representative sample of the material available in the wild has been collected (a process that can take several years for fragile populations), the samples are shipped to Fort Collins and locked in the vault for safekeeping.

Simultaneously, international biologists are creating the world's largest seed bank for native plants and wildflowers. When complete in 2010, the Millennium Seed Bank of England's Royal Botanic Garden will contain 24,000 species representing 10 percent of the world's dryland flora, species from arid and semi-arid regions at risk from desertification. After 2010, new species will be added as needed to supplement the collection, and any newly discovered species will be incorporated.

In the United States, organizations such as the federal Bureau of Land Management and nonprofit conservation groups are collecting seeds from 4,000 species on public and private lands for inclusion in the Millennium Seed Bank Project. Texas's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center plans to collect seeds from 950 Texas species for storage in England. The Wildflower Center has already shipped 176 samples of plants such as the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), the state flower and a common roadside attraction, and the pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa). Unlike the CPC's collection in Fort Collins, which will store endangered species, the Millennium Seed Bank Project aims to gather species before their numbers dwindle.

For wildflowers, which face a host of threats in this country--from habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban sprawl and development, to resource extraction, pollution and climate change--the effort to bank seeds before species near extinction is long overdue. "So much conservation is, 'Oh my god it's endangered, let's collect it,'" says Flo Oxley, conservation director for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. "This," she says of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, "is proactive."

Moreover, collecting seeds and using them for restoration is crucial to protecting biodiversity, which benefits mankind. "Plants have many gifts for man: Food, oils, fragrances, cures, you name it," Kennedy says. Without surviving wild stocks, many of today's agricultural crops would be imperiled. "Wild progenitors are absolutely essential," Kennedy says, "for our economy, for agriculture and for human prosperity."

Before European settlers arrived, unique wildflower species covered the American landscape, from sea level to the highest mountain meadows. But with the onset of agriculture, grazing and the construction of communities, habitat shrank and populations became fragmented and isolated. Today, nearly one-fourth of the 20,000 known native flowering plant species in the United States are considered threatened or of conservation concern. "It's not hopeless," Oxley says. "People realize that plants are the foundation of all life on Earth. But we are going to have to decide which species we are going to expend our energies and resources on." Unfortunately, saving plant species is not a major national priority. "In the future, some species may exist mostly in gardens," Oxley adds, "like Siberian tigers in zoos."

Global warming looms as one of the greatest threats, say flower experts. As temperatures rise, droughts lengthen, and rainfall patterns change, wildflowers will become stressed, flower earlier and less frequently and drop fewer seeds, leading to reproductive declines. Such predictions have already held true for the Texas poppy-mallow (Callirhoe scabriuscula). This Lone Star State endemic's habitat is restricted to alluvial sand deposits in just three counties along the upper Colorado River that have been plundered by sand mining and bisected by a four-lane highway. In addition, a multiyear drought across the Southwest has scorched these wine-colored flowers, which burst open after sunrise and close at sunset for one week each year. Because of low moisture content in the soil, the poppy-mallow failed to set seed last summer, Oxley says. "Sadly, it may already be too late for this lovely flower."

Far from the Texas Hill Country, warming will also wipe out wildflowers in mountain meadows, from the Alps to the Rockies, says University of California–Berkeley professor John Harte. To study how global warming will affect mountain flowers, Harte has used overhead heaters strung from cables to slow-cook ten 10-by-30-foot plots in a meadow in the hills outside Crested Butte, Colorado, at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). Researchers funded by university and government grants come from around the world to conduct studies at the RMBL. Harte's 15 years of cooking the meadow shows that as temperatures rise and moisture from the mountain snowpack diminishes, fewer seeds will germinate.

Wildflowers such as the twolobe larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum), which are adapted for short growing seasons, will be squeezed out as sagebrush, which thrives in arid conditions, creeps upward from lower elevations and establishes itself in these newly hospitable sun-baked meadows. The effects of this change will ripple through the ecosystem, as pollinators such as hummingbirds and bees that feed on wildflower nectar disappear, further diminishing flower reproduction. Harte expects to see widespread changes in about 50 years. What will these meadows resemble in a century? "Imagine the opening scenes in the movie The Sound of Music," he says, referring to Julie Andrews frolicking in Austria's wildflower meadows. "But now imagine that scene was filmed in the sagebrush outside of Reno, Nevada."

Unlike species that grow across broad geographic regions, rare wildflowers that grow on small, isolated plots are in even greater peril because of their limited numbers. One misplaced road, shopping mall or oil and gas well can stamp out a species. That's why environmentalists are trying to prevent the expansion of oil and gas drilling and mining on public lands such as western Colorado's Roan Plateau. The parachute penstemon (Penstemon debilis) is among the rarest wildflowers in the United States, according to the Center for Native Ecosystems, a Denver organization lobbying to protect threatened species in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The flower exists nowhere else but on the plateau, in five small patches. But two of the flower's patches are located on land leased to an oil company. Part of the snapdragon family, the flower grows on oil shale and can withstand hot, arid weather, but it "won't survive a drilling pad being placed on top of it," says the center's staff biologist, Erin Robertson.

Another rare wildflower, the DeBeque milkvetch (Astragalus debequaeus) produces white flowers and seedpods and is known to grow in eight patches, all in western Colorado. "Every site where it grows has been leased and gas drilling is already taking place," says Robertson. "It's in a perilous situation." Dust from new roads and drilling covers the plants and reduces photosynthesis, and destruction of habitat impacts the bees that pollinate the plants. These flowers symbolize what could happen to plant species across the nation's public lands if industrial activity increases, says Robertson.

Faced with such threats, seed banking efforts are becoming increasingly crucial, and the cooperation of landowners is important, especially in states such as Texas, where the majority of land is in private hands. Jean Nance, who owns 7.5 acres along two creeks in Travis County, is helping the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center collect seeds from her property for the Millennium Seed Bank Project. She has gathered seeds from 25 species, including the scarlet clematis (Clematis texensis), with flowers that resemble tiny pink rosebuds, and fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), its lemon yellow petals tipped with lacey fringe. Her land also holds the native orchid violet-maroon-colored coral root (Corallorrhiza wisteriana), blue mistflower (Conoclinium colestinum) and the Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), a vibrant yellow member of the aster family. "This land restores my soul every time I walk outside," she says. "I'm proud and comforted by the thought that people are storing my seed."

At Fort Collins, seeds are quickly stashed in the vault upon delivery. "The trick," says Christina Walters, who oversees the lab's seed preservation research, "is to get 100 percent survival and have them last a very long time. We estimate that seeds of high quality can survive at least a century in the freezer. Some of our oldest collections have survived 80 years."

Regardless, seed banks are no substitute for habitat preservation, says Walters, who has devoted her career to improving the science of seed storage. "We're not saving species here. We're simply putting them on ice. Seed banking can buy some time by preserving genetic diversity, but the real saving," she says, pointing out the window, "must take place out there."

Paul Tolmé wrote about global warming solutions in the April/May issue.

Eight Wildflower Destinations 
The word "wildflower" has no strict definition, but most people think of colorful, native meadow blooms. Other folks include flowering trees, while some define wildflowers as any blooms that are "beautiful." Semantics aside, here are eight wildflower destinations that dazzle:

1. Tucked amid towering peaks, the wildflower-dappled meadows of Crested Butte, Colorado, are often compared to the Alps for their lush, rugged beauty. Nature lovers come from around the country to attend the historic mining town's wildflower festival, July 11–17. Hike the vast trail network and see mariposa lilies, Indian paintbrushes, asters, wild irises and the state flower, Rocky Mountain columbines. For more, see the Crested Buttle Wildflower Festival site. Or head to another ski resort town, Alta, Utah, and attend the Wasatch Wildflower Festival, generally held the last weekend in July or the first in August.

2. Florida is Spanish for "flower state." The Florida Everglades have over 100 species of orchids, including the rare ghost orchid of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Also look for native scarlet hibiscus, blooming bromeliads growing on trees, coreopsis, the state wildflower, and pine lily, which blooms roadside. See the Florida Native Plant Society site.

3. Amateur photographers flock to the valley meadows of Grand Teton National Park outside Jackson, Wyoming, every spring during the peak bloom. Look for the scarlet gilia, with a flaming red nectar tube that attracts hummingbirds. Hike upslope from Cascade or Paintbrush Canyons and watch spring delicates such as yellowbells and shooting stars (both aptly named) burst forth at snow's edge. Also search for Lewis's monkey flower, a pinkish red bloom that looks like a monkey's face (with a little imagination). Visit National Park Service Grand Teton site.

4. The Texas Hill Country radiates an azure hue when bluebonnets burst open every spring along roadsides from Llano to Oxford and around Buchanan and LBJ Lakes. Attend the Bluebonnet Festival in Chappell Hill. For peak viewing, check the Wild About Texas Wildflowers website, for up-to-date reports. View Texas flora and learn about native species at Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

5. New Hampshire's Mount Washington and nearby Franconia Notch are home to the world's only populations of Robbins' cinquefoil, a delicate alpine perennial in the rose family that ambitious hikers can see for one or two weeks in June along trails that leave Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. For information on New England wildflowers, see the New England Wild Flower Society site.

6. In the Southeast, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers bursts of orange from the Turk's-cap lily, its petals curled back like an ornate crown. Pick up the guide Wildflowers of the Smokies, by Peter White. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and look for fleabane and black-eyed Susans. Check the bloom schedule for best viewing. In Kentucky, attend the Wildflower Pilgrimage, April 22–23, in Carter Caves State Resort Park.

7. The Columbia River Gorge is the Northwest's wildflower Mecca. Tucked between the forested Cascade Mountains and Oregon's eastern bunchgrass prairies, Tom McCall Preserve features an array of native plants including the endemic Thompson's broadleaf lupine. Visit the Glide Wildflower Show, April 28–29. For information on Columbia River Gorge flowers, see the U.S. Forest Service site or the Native Plant Society of Oregon site.

8. Rolling hills of poppies await visitors to California's Antelope Poppy Reserve in spring. The 1,745-acre reserve nestled in the Antelope Buttes 15 miles west of Lancaster was established to protect wildflowers, particularly the California poppy, the state flower. Seven miles of trails wind through fields of wildflowers. Best viewing is in mid-April. For more, visit the National Park Services Mojave National Preserve website.

Protecting Imperiled Species 
Working with its state affiliates and other conservationists throughout the country, NWF is involved in a wide range of efforts to protect endangered and threatened wildlife and native plants, such as the smooth coneflower. For more information, see our Wildlife site. To find out how you can get involved, see our Action site.

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How to Apply 
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