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Safeguarding Australia’s flora through the Australian Seed Bank Partnership

Volume 9 Number 1 - January 2012

Lucy Sutherland

The Australian Seed Bank Partnership is governed by The Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens Incorporated (CHABG Inc.) and brings together Australia’s leading botanical institutions, seed scientists and conservation and restoration experts (Table 1) to collaborate in the collecting and banking of native seed for conservation, as well as developing enabling technologies and sharing the body of knowledge required for industry development and strengthening Australia’s capacity to restore and connect landscapes and ecosystems through seed-based restoration.

The partnership is an excellent example of how the Australian Government and not-for-profit sector can work together.  The Australian Government supports this conservation programme through the Director of National Parks Statutory Agency (DNP). The DNP employs a National Coordinator to develop and maintain the Australian Seed Bank Partnership programme for CHABG Inc. and provides an operational budget, facilities and services for the Secretariat through the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Table 1: Members of the Australian Seed Bank Partnership

  • Australian National Botanic Gardens*
  • Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority (WA)*
  • Botanic Gardens of Adelaide (SA)*
  • Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha (Qld)*
  • George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens (NT)*
  • Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust (NSW)*
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Board (Vic)*
  • Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (Tas)*
  • Australian Network for Plant Conservation
  • Threatened Flora Seed Centre, Department of Environment and Conservation (WA)
  • Greening Australia
  • Griffith University 
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
  • University of Queensland

  Those Partners marked with an * have a representative on the management committee of CHABG Inc.

The Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens was formed in the 1990s as a network of Directors from Australia’s capital city botanic gardens.  The original purpose of the network was to provide a forum for capital city botanic gardens to share information, develop policy and discuss and coordinate strategic initiatives for their mutual benefit and the benefit of their communities.  Evolving this network into a not-for-profit organisation has created an outward focused charity which supports the protection, conservation and enhancement of Australian plants and their ecosystems, as well as the provision of information and education and undertaking research about plants and plant communities.  By establishing a legal body and realigning the focus, CHABG Inc. is in a position to coordinate efforts nationally to make significant contributions by botanic gardens and their partners to national conservation programmes through the scientific, research, horticultural and educational expertise within these organisations.

The Australian Seed Bank Partnership (formerly known as Australian Seed Conservation and Research AuSCaR) builds on the legacy of work and AUD$24 million investment from 2001-2010 undertaken as part of the Millennium Seed Bank Project (now Partnership).  Through this work, the Australian Partners have a proven track record in seed conservation and germination research, and to date have safeguarded over 8,000 plant species across a network of conservation seed banks throughout Australia, and improved knowledge about germination for more than 2,800 of the species that have been banked.  The Australian Seed Bank Partnership is CHABG Inc.’s main plant conservation programme.

A far-reaching impact through collaboration

Around 92% of Australia’s plant species are endemic. The loss, degradation and fragmentation of natural habitats threaten the native flora. Plants are less resilient to external pressures when the communities of which they are a part shrink, or when populations become isolated from each other. Currently, in Australia, more than 1,300 plant species and ecological communities are known to be compromised nationally and at risk of extinction. For each species listed as threatened, there are many more affected by loss of habitat and other hazards.

By evolving the AuSCaR network to the Australian Seed Bank Partnership (ASBP), under CHABG Inc., there has been a significant breakthrough in terms of bringing together expertise within institutions, governed under different state legislation, to tackle conservation at a national level through seed science and seed banking.  ASBP programme is a commitment by CHABG Inc. to actively support the implementation of Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030 (Natural Resources Ministerial Council 2010:21-22) and provides a national safety net for Australia’s plant species through ex situ conservation that will provide options for the future use of these species  and provide important insurance against biodiversity loss.

Conservation seed banking efforts from members of the ASBP have also been significant in assisting the Australian Government to fulfil its major international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and more specifically, the Convention’s Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC).  The ongoing work of the Partners contributes to the GSPC’s objectives of understanding, documenting and recognising plant diversity and ensuring plant diversity is urgently and effectively conserved.  Moreover, it contributes to the GSPC 2020 targets focusing on conservation and restoration such as Targets 4 and 8 which specify a minimum of 15% of each ecological region or vegetation type be secured through effective management and/or restoration, with at least 75% of threatened plant species in ex situ collections and at least 20% of those available for recovery and restoration programmes.  The Partnership also makes significant contributions to such international efforts as the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

The ASBP is anticipated to have ongoing far-reaching effects.  The work provides an insurance against the loss of plant species in the wild.  Furthermore, the seed bank collections, combined with the knowledge of their germination requirements and survival strategies provide an irreplaceable resource for government, non-government organisations, landholders and community groups who are actively conserving and restoring Australia’s rich and diverse landscapes.

What are the priorities?
Members of the ASBP are combining their collecting and research efforts to create a distributed network of seed banks.  These combined efforts capitalise on the nation’s expertise and assist with risk management of collections, and enable a cost effective response to safeguarding Australia’s flora.  The efforts will aim to achieve security for Australia’s wild plant diversity and increased understanding of ways to enable its sustainable use.  Over the next few years, the Partnership’s efforts will focus on:

1) A Knowledge Hub - Australia’s Virtual Seed Bank
While collecting seeds and undertaking research, partners have captured large amounts of information on flowering and fruiting periods in a diversity of Australian landscapes as well as details of germination and seed storage requirements for particular plant species.  The Partnership is collaborating with the Atlas of Living Australia ( to build an accessible on-line seed information resource, built on national standards, so the data can be shared, retrieved and utilised as efficiently and effectively as possible.  This virtual seed bank will:

  •  Bring together research knowledge from across the nation to enhance understanding of seed handling and storage leading to improve seed conservation and use practices;
  • Support policy and planning and guide research development;
  • Provide up-to-date information to restoration and conservation practitioners, and community groups, on the unique reproductive biology and ecology of native plants, to support integrated conservation and ecosystem restoration programmes;
  • Encourage knowledge sharing to support economic development of native biological resources e.g. for the nursery and horticulture industry, native seed industry and Australian farmers.

2) National seed collection
Several of the initiatives being undertaken by the ASBP will contribute to the development of a comprehensive store of wild native plant seeds and genetic resources for conservation risk management and insurance against the loss of wild plant diversity.  Through coordinated and collaborative efforts, the aim is to increase the efficiency of seed collecting and banking activities and reduce costs and unnecessary duplication.

One priority for the upcoming years is the 1,000 Species Project.  This project brings together expertise from across the country; the Partners will collect and store seed from 1,000 native plant species which are valued for their endemic, endangered or economic significance. The focus will be on species not already collected and secured in Australia’s conservation seed banks.

A second priority is furthering seed science to support restoration activities through the Restoring Diversity Project.  Understanding seed biology of Australia’s diverse flora is a barrier to the success of restoring diversity in broad scale landscapes, which is an Australian Government priority.  Focusing collection development on priority ecosystems and building a body of knowledge through research and development undertaken by ASBP members will make a significant contribution to overcoming barriers to effective restoration, as well as effectively building a national seed collection for conservation.

Challenges to overcome
CHABG Inc. faces several challenges with the ASBP programme.  Firstly, any national approach to conservation work in Australia is influenced by the fact that the nation is governed as a federation of six states and two territories and tensions are created by the powers being divided between the central government and individual states.  Furthermore, each state and territory operates under different legislation, with varying support given to biodiversity conservation and research and development.
Ex situ conservation is often regarded as a ‘last resort’ in Australia and its role in

integrated conservation management is not always recognised or highly valued.  A second challenge for CHABG Inc. is to increase understanding and demonstrating the value of seed science and seed banking for the conservation and sustainable use of Australia’s biodiversity, as well as broad-scale landscape restoration.  This will assist the greater integration of ex situ conservation into in situ conservation and restoration activities.

Current conservation funding programmes in Australia place emphasis on practical outcomes.  Seed research and development of enabling technologies for landscape conservation and restoration programmes often fail to meet the criteria for these funding programmes.  CHABG Inc.’s third challenge is to build greater support and recognition for seed banking, seed science and seed biology to facilitate greater resources for this work to be undertaken at the scale needed to make effective contributions to the conservation and restoration of Australia’s biodiversity.

The functional boundaries of Australian capital city botanic gardens are being pushed by the need for a suitable framework for the ASPB’s conservation activities. The creation of a national botanic garden not-for-profit entity (i.e. The Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens Incorporated) supports botanic gardens to work collaboratively for the protection, conservation and enhancement of Australian plants and their ecosystems.  Furthermore, a current focus on the ASBP Programme creates an environment where staff are able to look beyond their institution and contribute to national efforts for biodiversity conservation through seed science and seed banking and the sharing of knowledge.  There are great hopes, through this innovative approach, to increase resources being allocated to seed science and banking and to raise awareness and understanding of the far reaching impacts of seed science.

Defining commonly used terms
Restoration – the return of a degraded habitat to its original species composition, structure and function.
Revegetation – to provide a habitat with vegetation; may not necessarily include original provenance or species composition

Source: Offord, C.A. and Meagher, P.F. 2009. Plant Germplasm Conservation in Australia: strategies and guidelines for developing, managing and utilising ex situ collections.  Canberra: Australian Network of Plant Conservation Incorporated.

Dr Lucy A. Sutherland
National Coordinator - Australian Seed Bank Partnership
Australian National Botanic Gardens
GPO Box 1777, Canberra ACT 2601