Building an Ark for the World’s Plants

  • Prairie plants are being lost to development.(Courtesy of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

You’ve heard about the ark Noah built to save the world’s animals. Now comes news of another kind of ark – one designed to help save the world’s plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sandy Hausman has that story:


You’ve heard about the ark Noah built to save the world’s animals. Now
comes news of another kind of ark – one designed to help save the
world’s plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sandy Hausman
has that story:

(Sound of walking through the prairie up then under)

You might say Pati Vitt is looking for the right stock to fill the ark.
She’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, her long brown hair in braids, a field
notebook in hand, and a pencil tied to her pants. For nine months of each
year, she wanders along railroad tracks, through old cemeteries and
nature preserves, filling shopping bags with the seeds of prairie plants.

Vitt is a conservation scientist with the Chicago Botanic Garden. She has
studied these plants since she was a child. She knows their Latin names.
She dreams about them at night. She even knows the intimate details of
their reproductive lives:

“One does it having teeny little flowers and taking small little bees, and
another one does it by having huge flowers and lots of nectar and they
have really big bees or maybe a moth that pollinates them.”

And, she says, prairie plants are hearty. Native to the Upper Midwest,
they can handle icy winters and long, hot droughts, but they can’t fight
plows or bulldozers. Farmers and developers have destroyed almost all
the land where prairie plants once grew. Today, one-tenth of one percent
of the original prairie remains.

“That means that what we’re looking at right here is one-tenth of one
percent of the population that this plant once enjoyed. I’m sorry. Even
though there’s a lot in this prairie, this plant should be endangered,
because there are so few acres of its habitat left and everyday we’re
coming and we’re taking more and more of it. The prairie habitat is more
endangered than tropical rainforest.”

That worries Vitt, not only because she thinks the prairie plants are
beautiful, but because they may have value to people. For example, she
says about half of our modern medicines came – originally – from plants
or the fungus found in the soil beneath them.

“If you think about penicillin… penicillin came from mold. We might be
standing on a treasure trove of antibiotics, which we need, but if we let
the plants go, we let the soil fungi go, we let the potential antibiotics go.”

(Sound of seeds dropping into a jar)

So Vitt is collecting prairie seeds from about 1,500 plants and shipping
them to the English countryside.

(Sound of birds)

Just south of London, the British government has built what it hopes will
be the largest seed bank in the world devoted to wild plants. The
building looks like a series of greenhouses made from concrete, stone,
glass and steel. In the basement, fire and bombproof vaults hold billions of
seeds from 24,000 species:

“That’s the exciting bit. We thought big.”

Michael Way is a scientist at the Millennium Seed Bank. He says it’s
needed now because a lot of wild plants are in danger of
disappearing because of global warming and the pace of human
development. Way believes a third of the world’s plant species could be
gone by 2050.

“You hope that the worst is not going to happen. Of course, from time to
time the worst does happen. If a plant population is destroyed, if a
decision is taken to build houses or factories or roads on a particular area
which was home to some quite special plants, seed banking is one tool
you can use to protect that genetic diversity that might be unique to that

Each day, seeds arrive from Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East
and the Americas. They sit in colorful plastic crates — waiting to be
cleaned, dried and frozen. Way says these seeds could survive for a
century or more.

“Seeds are tough – small but tough, and the whole point of seeds is to be
dormant and allow themselves to be transported around, so unless we do
something really stupid, they will remain viable.”

Back in the U.S., Pati Vitt says seed banks like the one near London
could mean the survival of humanity, since people can’t live without

“I think fundamentally we all understand that we are a part of nature, but
in our daily lives we get so cut off from it that we forget.”

She sees the Earth as a garden, and she wants people to act like
gardeners. Setting up seed banks is an important first step.

“We will have the tools that we need to bring things back if necessary.”

For the GLRC, I’m Sandy Hausman.

Related Links