Building An Ark For New England's Rare Plants, Seed By Seed

Aug 17, 2017

In New England, 22 percent of the region's native plants are considered rare. Some of them are on the federal list of endangered species. Biologists worldwide and locally have been saving crop seeds, and seeds from other plants important to the ecosystem. 

Banking them is an attempt to stop the plants from disappearing altogether. In the past year, seed collectors have been stepping up their pace.

There's a "seed ark" in Framingham, Massachusetts, at Garden in the Woods, a place as beautiful as its name. On a warm summer night, New England Wildflower Society Conservation Director Bill Brumback unlocked the door of a nondescript cinder block building that houses the ark, or vault. It looks exactly like the extra freezer you might keep in your garage. Except for what's inside.

Brumback raised the lid to reveal a few dozen stacked containers, filled with foil packets.

“There are only rare seeds in this vault,” he said.

About a million rare seeds. Labels on the packets are handwritten, noting species, and where and when the seeds were gathered.

And if the electricity goes out?

“It’s not like meat that's going to spoil,” he said. “You're talking about things that may have a shelf life, if you will, of hundreds of years.”

Some seeds, once cleaned and stored, may lose their viability. Brumback said scientists test them over time.

Little Security, Big Threats

If this vault is an ecosystem’s lifeline, the security appears rather unremarkable. It's not Fort Knox, I joked.

It's not even Fort Collins, Colorado -- Brumback joked back -- where seeds for the national apple collection are kept.

What is remarkable is that Brumback has been collecting seeds from rare native plants since 1982.

“It was a good idea back then,” he said. “That was before climate change became more notorious.”

Other threats to plant life have been around a long time, Brumback said. Deforestation and reforestation, dammed up rivers, growing cities and suburbs, and even something as unassuming as a trail in the woods.

At last count, New England was home to 2,400 native plants, including Jesup's Milk Vetch, which is on the federal endangered species list.

“[It’s] found in three places in the world,” Brumback said, “all along a 16-mile stretch of the Connecticut River in Vermont and New Hampshire.”

Castilleja, or Indian paintbrush, is another one conservation ecologists are keeping an eye on.

"It's now only found in Connecticut,” Brumback said. "It used to be much more widespread."

Ecologists occasionally break into the vault, to plant some seeds, re-introducing a species to its natural habitat.

Brumback's big goal is to fill the ark with seeds from approximately 300 rare native species by 2020. That's thousands of seeds per species, from multiple locations. At last count, with the help of hundreds of trained volunteers, a lot of private and some public money, they were about halfway there.

Brumback said he needs another freezer. More seeds are coming.

Sedges Have Edges

Research ecologist Elizabeth Farnsworth is based at the wildflower society's plant farm in Whatley, Massachusetts, which also houses seed dehydration equipment.

On a rainy weekday afternoon, Farnsworth and I are looking on-line at pictures of rare sedges. She found one, and talked about some distinguishing characteristics -- namely, sedges have edges.

“Here are the seeds," she said, pointing at the screen. "That’s what we’re going to collect, or the fruits, I should say, that have the seeds inside them."

To the untrained eye, the sedge looks like grass, a bit deeper in color. But, Farnsworth said, once you see it in the wild, you’ll never not see it again. It's a species she's rather fond of and has been researching for more than 15 years.

“Back in 2001, it was still known as Carex flaccosperma var. glaucodea​," she said, with gusto.

She laughed, but then got serious when she told me the location of the hike could not be revealed. Scientists are very protective of rare species, in great part because they don't want random Johnny Appleseeds over-collecting and planting in spots that could harm other species.

The Search For A Rare Plant

Twenty minutes into the walk to find the Glaucescent Sedge, rain started coming down heavily. At one point, Farnsworth doubled back, taking out her compass, and she mentioned she had a GPS device, if needed.

She soon went off-trail, and up a steep incline, only to land -- surprised but stalwart -- back at a spot she had already been. Moving on, Farnsworth said that as we went deeper into the forest, we would see fewer and fewer herbaceous plants.

"We’ll be looking for these guys!" she said, referring to the sedge. "Fingers crossed!"

It was at an opening in the tree cover that Farnsworth was sure she was in the same spot she found the sedge two years ago. She combed the ground with her eyes for several minutes.

“I’m a bit puzzled now. [It] just may not be my lucky day,” she said, and then kept looking, head down.

Several other sedge varieties revealed themselves in the next few minutes, but not the rare Glaucescent.

And then she stopped, and picked something. She looked at it for a while with the magnifying lens from around her neck. Farnsworth had found her plant.

“I believe it is our Glaucescent Sedge, even though it doesn't look particularly glaucous in the pouring rain,” she said.

Past The Point Of Useful

“They're over-mature, shall we say. I may have gotten out here just a little too late,” Farnsworth said.

She was surprised by the plant’s age. Over the last couple of years, this had been the right time to gather its seed. 

“At least we know there's still one or two of these guys out here, and a little clump over there,” she said.

Ecologists Are Optimists

The survival of humankind didn't depend on finding this one rare sedge on this day, Farnsworth said. But the entire ecosystem remains at risk.

“You lose a plant," she said, "you lose everything that depends upon it. And if you lose enough plants, you lose many of the important services they provide to us as humans.”

Like oxygen, medicine and food.

Speaking of, we're hungry. Farnsworth happened to find some tiny blueberries on a bush, right near the sedge. 

The New England Wildflower Society's seed ark, among others, may never be fully needed. But Farnsworth said the climate science is irrefutable and what is known about a warming planet could make an ecologist, among others, not want to get out of bed in the morning.

But she said ecologists are generally optimists, and that’s because you do see plants come back from the brink. Like Henry David Thoreau before her, Elizabeth Farnsworth has faith in a seed.