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Hawai’i Island native seed bank

Volume 12 Number 1 - January 2015

Jill Wagner and Paul Ponthieux

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Hawai’i’s native ecosystems are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. For example, over 95% of Hawai’i’s dry forests have been destroyed, and over 25% of the endangered taxa in the Hawaiian flora are from the dry forest.  Habitat loss due to wildfires, ungulate grazing, and development continues to alter the landscape at an alarming rate.  It is vital that the precious species of Hawai’i’s dry, mesic, and wet forest ecosystems be conserved. Seed banking is an important strategy for doing this.

The Hawai‘i Forest Institute, in collaboration with community partners, is working to mitigate and reverse the loss of native species and habitats through the Hawai‘i Island Native Seed Bank. The Seed Bank enables project partners to store seed for the future and create a genetic safety net for Hawaiian species.  Banked seeds can be used for broadcast seeding, performing restoration work, creating living fuel breaks, and conducting research.  Seed banking has in recent years become an essential restoration and conservation tool. 

Short-term seed banking can be used for the preservation of scarce, endangered plants.  Seed from species for which only a few individuals are left can be saved and propagated in the future. In fact, seed banking has saved a species: Isodendrion pyrifolium (a Hawaiian violet), the founders of which died due to drought but the seed from good seed years had been collected and stored.  It is still possible to propagate plants derived from the seed of the deceased founder and therefore keep the genetic identity of that species alive. 

Fire is a constant threat to native ecosystems in Hawai’i.  Hawaiian plants have not evolved with fire (seed is not fire stimulated), so forests burn and native plants do not regenerate rapidly.  Fire-adapted non-native species take over following fires and often alter the landscape forever. Seed banking – and subsequent reintroduction of native plants to burned areas through broadcast seeding or out-planting has become an essential tool for restoration following fire. 

Over the past 20 years, seed on Hawai’i Island was mainly collected only to meet propagation needs for the current year.  No seed was saved for the future.  Because seed production and viability are sporadic from year to year, this means that seed may not be available or viable when it is most needed.   For example, in 2010 a Hawai’i Island dry forest restoration project required 500 Dodonaea viscosa seedlings. Because 2010 was a drought year in Hawai’i, the 2010 seed had very low viability.  Fortunately Dodonaea seeds had been stored from 2008 collections and they had very high viability.  Thus the restoration goals could be achieved using the older stored seeds.

Seed Bank history and operation

In 2008, the Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) provided start-up funding to help create the Hawai’i Island Native Seed Bank which is housed at Pu’u Wa’awa’a Ranch, on Hawai’i Island.  Other funding has been received from the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  In 2012 HWMO further supported the seed bank by providing funding to purchase a 10′ x10′ walk-in refrigerator.  This refrigerator is operated with solar power and is in an enclosed building that has over 8 inches of insulation and an enclosed entry foyer, making it extremely cost-effective to operate.  The large size fridge eliminated the limitations that a normal size refrigerator imposed upon seed collection and storage.  Now the Hawai’i Seed Bank is able to collect and save seeds without concerns about storage space. 

Pu’u Wa’awa’a Ranch is home to a small off-grid micro grid at the base of one of Hawaii’s most historic Pu’us (little mountain). The remaining 32-acre ranch headquarters of what once was a 110,000-acre cattle ranch is powered by an independent renewable energy system. The system consists of an 85 kW photovoltaic (PV) array and a state of the art Sony Energy Storage System (ESS). The Sony ESS provides the primary storage for powering the ranch at night, and in poor weather. The Olivine type, Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries are rated at 50 kilowatts of power with 110 kilowatt hours of stored energy. 

Pu’u Wa’awa’a has a micro-climate that usually results in cloudy overcast conditions by mid-day. The large PV array on the roof of the Energy Lab is designed to provide enough power to the daytime loads of the ranch in marginal weather, but during early mornings and exceptional days, there is an excess of solar energy being delivered. During these periods, the excess energy is routed to make hydrogen and stored for use later. The resulting solar hydrogen can be used to power vehicles, turned back into electricity with stationary fuel cells when the batteries are low, or used for cooking in place of propane. This system ensures that the maximum amount of solar energy is harvested at all times from the PV array.

All utility power lines and poles were removed to ensure the safety of the endangered Nene’, (Hawaiian goose), that call the ranch and surrounding conservation land and reservoir home. Electrical power is now delivered throughout the ranch via underground transmission lines. 

The Seed Bank’s walk-in cooler is powered entirely by the power of the sun with clean renewable solar energy saving over $4,000 dollars per year on operational costs.

The seed collections are stored for seed bank partners on Hawai‘i Island and all accessions are made up of Hawai‘i Island native species. In cooperation with local, State, and Federal agencies, the Seed Bank collects and accepts seed from common as well as rare, threatened and endangered species. Collections of common species can be shared for restoration at various sites in need of seed, or saved strictly for the partner site. Each partner site specifies whether they want to save the seed for their own future projects or are giving the seed to be shared with other sites.  

User fees for seed storage are minimal at $200/year for a 2’x3’ cubic bin.  This fee pays for seed drying, packaging, database management for the incoming collections throughout the year as well as long-term storage.  Each user has their own bin so collections are separated by site.  The Seed Bank also offers services such as viability analysis. Germination rate is determined at the time the seed is brought into the seed bank, after one year, five years and ten years, thereby establishing germination stability or decline in storage.  Seed cleaning services are also offered.  Seed bank personnel utilize a small machine that separates the seed from the husk.  Another machine removes the husk so that what remains are clean seeds that are ready to be dried to 20% moisture level, packaged and stored. 

In restoration work it is easy and practical for the site managers to monitor the flowering and seeding of plants in the field.  Thus, seeds can be collected throughout the year.  Common seed is collected in bulk and collectors note the number of trees that the seed was collected from at the site, as well as other pertinent collection information, such as date, and location information.  Rare seed is collected by individual founder.  These data help to monitor the genetics of species.  The seed bank is a “working seed bank,” which means that the seed is stored for up to 15 years under refrigeration.  It is not intended to be a long-term storage facility.  The working seed bank model is one in which the seed is reintroduced into the environment as needed.  It is cycled out into the field every year for 5-10 years (at the latest) for propagation or broadcasting.  The idea is to collect more seeds than are needed for the current year and have them available for future restoration or research projects. 

The Hawai‘i Island Native Seed Bank is a partner in a larger Statewide seed bank network; the Hawaii Seed Bank Partnership.  Each of the main Hawaiian Islands has developed its own seed bank.  The Statewide Partnership comes together annually to work on seed banking issues such as prioritizing research needs for Hawaiian species, developing standardized operational protocols, data management, and conducting research on rare and endangered species; creating duplicate collections within the State; creating conservation plans for Species of Conservation Importance; and networking with partners in the Hawaii Plant Conservation Network.  The Hawaii Plant Conservation Network includes government agencies, conservation alliances, educational institutions, botanical gardens, micropropagation laboratories, nurseries, and other conservation groups.