The Global Tree Seed Bank Initiative

Introduction to our ‘Guest Blog’ below (by Shelagh McCartan)

I recently spotted an article about the ‘Global Tree Seed Bank Initiative’. I asked Tannis Beardmore, who is involved in the ex situ conservation of native tree species in Canada, to provide some facts and figures about the critically endangered species that are currently under-represented in seed banks.

Guest Blog by Tannis Beardmore (Tree Seed Researcher at Natural Resources Canada, Canada)

There are an estimated 80,000 species of trees in the world. Approximately 450 species are used today in commercial forestry and are stored in forestry seed banks leaving the remaining 79,550 species with uncertain representation in ex situ conservation. Over 9,000 tree species are currently assessed as threatened with extinction, and over 1,100 species are listed on IUCN red lists as Critically Endangered and they are likely to become extinct unless urgent action is taken. Recently, it was identified that 74% of the most threatened trees are absent from ex situ collections. There is such uncertainty with regard to the full impact of a species going extinct. Species diversity ensures ecosystem resilience, giving ecological communities the scope they need to withstand stressors. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have estimated that losing one plant species from an ecosystem can create a cascade of up to 30 other localised plant and animal extinctions.

Seed banking is becoming more important than ever as species populations are disappearing at greatly accelerated rates as a result of a variety of stressors. Given the magnitude and scope of the challenges we face in conserving plant diversity, seed are often the propagule of choice to collect and store. Seed banks can offer the most cost-effective means for storing large numbers of species over long periods of time. Many seed banks were created in the 1970s-80s and were developed to address the global surge in agricultural crop yields. It was recognized that vast amount of agricultural biodiversity was being lost, as farmers abandoned old seeds, often locally developed over centuries, for new hybrids. Excellent initiatives have been developed primarily to address the ex situ conservation of agricultural seed. Recently, there is focus on the ex situ conservation of tree species.

In 2014, the Global Tree Seed Bank Initiative was developed and became possible through funding by the Garfield Weston Foundation in Canada (funding of £5 million). This initiative is a 4-year project which involves the Global Trees Campaign (GTC) and the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) who will work with partners around the world to provide training on seed collection and establish ex situ seed collections for threatened tree species. The GTC was launched as a joint initiative in 1999 between Fauna & Flora International and Botanic Gardens Conservation International to conserve the world’s threatened tree species, while the MSBP is an international conservation project coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. The goal of the Global Tree Seed Bank Initiative is to establish an ex situ collection in each species’ country of origin, while back-up collections will also be established at the Millennium Seed Bank.

This initiative has the goal to secure ex situ collections of seed from 500 priority tree species from around the world with a focus on threatened trees. The partnership also aims to increase capacity for seed collection of threatened trees and raise awareness of the value of establishing seed collections for the world’s threatened trees. Currently, the MSBP has already collected seed from 3900 trees over the last 14 years, and as a result of this new project aims to increase its tree collections by 50% over four years (by March 2019).

This initiative is working with existing and new MSB partners across the world to target seed collection of the rarest, most threatened and useful trees. Fifteen countries across four continents are participating in this initiative. Alongside seed collecting, a research programme is being undertaken to improve our knowledge of tree species leading to improved conservation. Propagation protocols are being established for key species and used for forest restoration projects. A DNA fingerprint library of important timber species is being assembled for pinpointing the geographical origin of timber exports. Storage protocols for recalcitrant tree species like oak (Quercus) and magnolia (Magnolia) are being developed. Genetic studies on rare trees are being carried out to help design species recovery programmes in island habitats. Additionally, methodologies are being established to study tree species traits and their resilience to environmental threats, leading to better prioritisation of species for seed banking. This is an exciting initiative which should have a significant impact on conserving some of the world’s most threatened tree species.

For more information about the Global Trees Campaign go to or email


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