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Saving Useful Plants through the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership

Do seed banks hold the key to sustainable development?

They hold priceless genetic diversity of value to agriculture, forestry, and medicine, and they also act as hubs for sharing of knowledge associated with the propagation and use of plants.

Seed banks will certainly play an increasingly important role in helping communities find new ways of using natural resources sustainably. The genetic diversity held by seed banks will be critical in adaptation to the challenge of climate change.

Scientist at work at the Millenium Seed BankScientist at work at the Millenium Seed Bank

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which holds collections of crop seeds as a backup to national agricultural programs, has enjoyed significant media interest. However the role of the growing network of seed banks for wild plant species deserves better recognition. This is particularly important as the UK (chiefly at the University of Reading) has led much of the research effort to understand, for example, that seeds of most plants can be safely preserved for many decades in dry, cold storage.

The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Partnership

The UK is also host to the most ambitious seed banking initiative of them all, the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Partnership, founded by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew).

Through a network that builds capacity and shares knowledge amongst more than 100 partner organisations in 50 countries, the MSB Partnership celebrated the achievement in October 2009 of 10% of the world’s plant species safeguarded in seed banks. This milestone followed the an unprecedented banking of seed from practically all the UK native flora in 2000 as a result of a massive effort from botanical societies, wildlife trusts, and volunteers.

The focus for this initiative is RBG Kew’s country garden at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, where the public is able to see examples of the seeds preserved in the underground vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank itself, and where visiting scientists carry out research on the storage, germination, and use of seed. Each of the Access & Benefit-Sharing agreements signed by RBG Kew with partner countries sets out the identified priorities for seed banking and capacity building, and as a result the endemic, endangered, or economically useful (known as the three Es) species account for half of the seed collections preserved by the MSB Partnership.

International cooperation

Cooperation in Botswana, Kenya, Mali, Mexico and South Africa through the Project MGU*, (also known as the Useful Plants Project) illustrates how seed banks can respond to the needs of local communities for useful plants. The project conserves useful plants for human wellbeing by building the capacity of communities to successfully store and propagate species of local importance, especially for food and medicine. The activities include the identification of plants useful to local communities; the collection and preservation of seed from these species; applied scientific research; plant propagation and establishment of useful plant gardens; and the enrichment of village forests.

Seed collections have been stored in the national seed banks in Botswana, Kenya, Mali, Mexico and South Africa, with duplicate material stored in the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK. The capacity of local communities to use a wide range of plant species has been enhanced through training and the improvement of local facilities for seed storage and plant cultivation.

Examples of priority species

Adensonia digitata

Adansonia digitata (baobab, from Botswana, Kenya and Mali): widely used by local communities in Africa as a source of water, food and medicine. The leaves are eaten as a leaf vegetable, the fruit is nutritious and seeds are mostly used as a thickener for soups, but may also be fermented into a seasoning, roasted for direct consumption, or pounded to extract vegetable oil.

Kigelia africana

Kigelia africana (Sausage Tree, from Botswana and Kenya): in African herbal medicine, the fruit is believed to be a cure for a wide range of ailments, from rheumatism, snakebites, evil spirits, syphilis, and even tornadoes. It is also used in a number of skin care products and an alcoholic beverage similar to beer is also made from it. The tree is widely grown as an ornamental tree in tropical regions for its decorative flowers and unusual fruit.

Lippia graveolens

Lippia graveolens (Mexican oregano): the Mexican oregano is not only used as a culinary herb, but also traditionally valued for its medicinal properties. Essential oils from the plant have been shown to possess anti-microbial properties, and to be effective against Giardia lamblia, a protozoan parasite that is a common cause of diarrhoeal illness worldwide.

Vitellaria paradoxa

Vitellaria paradoxa (karité, Mali): commonly known as shea tree, vitellaria or karité, and indigenous to Africa. The shea fruit consists of a thin, tart, nutritious pulp that surrounds a relatively large, oil-rich seed from which shea butter is extracted. In the West, shea butter is mostly used for cosmetics. Throughout Africa it is used extensively for food and medicinal purposes, and is a major source of dietary fat.

Citrullus lunatus

Citrullus lunatus (Kalahari Melon, from Botswana): the wild watermelon and an important source of water and food in the Kalahari during dry months when no surface water is available. The fruit is cut open at one end and the first piece of flesh is eaten. The contents are pounded with a stick before being consumed. Seeds are roasted and ground into tsamma meal, a nutritious food with a pleasant nutty taste. Leaves and young fruits are utilised as green vegetables. The peels of the fruit are traditionally used for making jam.

Local engagement to meet community livelihood needs

A recent review of Project MGU, during a workshop held in Mali in June 2010 with partners and external evaluators, recognised that strong engagement has been achieved with communities in Botswana, Kenya and Mali, particularly for planting and growing the useful plants. A stronger research component was acknowledged in the project in Mexico, where studies have analysed the active compounds of the most important medicinal plants growing in different environmental conditions. Likewise, the project in South Africa has been carrying out ecological studies, analysing the conservation status of selected medicinal plants in their natural environment, including the impact of harvesting.

Through this experience the MSB partnership is demonstrating that knowledge of plant science held by seed banks can help to address community livelihood needs. It has been recognised that income generation through the marketing of plant products will increase the sustainability of these project activities in the future. When this local impact is combined with the worldwide supply of seed and knowledge from the MSB Partnership to researchers, we conclude that seed banks are a key resource for adaptation to future environments and for wider sustainable development.

Further reading


The Useful Plants Project began in June 2007 and has grown from a proposal made to RBG Kew by a philanthropist based in Spain.

*The name MGU reflects the generous support provided by this philanthropist for the work of the Useful Plants Project. The MSB Partnership is supported by private donors, companies and Defra.

All photos are courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

About Kew

Throughout its history, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has made important contributions to increasing the understanding of the plant kingdom with many benefits for mankind. Today it is still first and foremost a scientific institution. With its collections of living and preserved plants, of plant products and botanical information, it forms an encyclopaedia of knowledge about the plant kingdom.

Kew’s aim is to inspire and deliver science-based plant conservation worldwide, enhancing the quality of life.

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