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Native seed bank may provide ash trees of the future
4/28/2016 Volume XLIX, No. 16

As you may have heard, an invasive insect known as the Emerald Ash Borer is wiping out ash trees, one of New Jersey’s most beautiful and common native trees.

There seems to be no stopping the spread of these tiny winged insects, whose larvae tunnel through tree bark and eat the tender wood inside. Robbed of water and nutrients, infected ash trees die within two to four years.

But there’s still hope for future generations.

That hope is contained in seed banks like the Mid Atlantic Regional Seed Bank in Staten Island. Last year, Mid Atlantic used a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to train volunteers to collect seeds from healthy ash tree populations in New York. It’s hoping for a grant to conduct a similar project in New Jersey and Delaware.

Ed Toth, director of the seed bank, explained that storing the seeds will allow scientists to research resistance to Emerald Ash Borers and try to grow disease-resistant new trees. Continuing to gather ash seeds will ensure plenty of genetic variety.

Seed banking is not new, but the science and technology behind it have greatly improved in recent years. 

“In some regards, humans have been storing seeds since we’ve been humans,” said Toth. “We’ve always needed to save seeds for the next year’s crop.”

Modern seeds banks are essentially temperature and humidity-controlled vaults where seeds can be kept viable for decades - even centuries – to prevent the loss of plant species. Banks can be large or small, and operate at a regional, national or global scale.

The world’s most famous is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Carved into a mountainside on a remote island near the North Pole, the vault “looks like something out of James Bond,” noted Toth.

Svalbard contains seeds for agricultural crops found all over the world and is often dubbed the “doomsday” vault because it stores seed as a hedge against apocalyptic disasters like nuclear war. Seeds deposited at Svalbard are rarely removed and may last for centuries.

The Mid Atlantic Regional Seed Bank, on the other hand, is what’s known as an “active” bank in that its seeds are used for native plant restoration projects on an ongoing basis.

“The analogy I use is that we’re like a savings and loan bank,” said Toth. “Seed comes in and seed goes out all the time. It’s a safe place to keep seeds until someone needs them.”

The Mid Atlantic Regional Seed Bank is operated out of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a facility operated by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. It collects and stores seeds from native plant populations within a 100-mile radius of New York City.

Most of Mid Atlantic’s seeds are collected from wild plants, but some are grown. In one recent project, the D&R Greenway Land Trust grew native plant seeds for Mid Atlantic at its St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell Township.

Mid Atlantic’s vault is a walk-in cooler with an industrial dehumidifier, housing about 2,600 seed collections representing 600 native species. It started in 2000 and is now part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s “Seed of Success” network of regional seed banks.

“We estimate that our seeds remain viable for decades at a time, rather than hundreds of years. And we’re certainly not something out of James Bond,” said Toth.

Mid Atlantic is an invaluable resource for projects aimed at revegetating land, stabilizing hillsides and stopping invasive plants from taking root. And for scientists working to help native species like the ash tree.

To learn more about the Mid Atlantic Regional Seed Bank, go to www.marsb.org. For more information on the Emerald Ash Borer, go to http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/forest/community/Emerald_Ash_Borer.htm.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 

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