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From the vault: Seed storage aids student gardening, conservation

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Preserved Asclepias exaltata seeds are photographed at the North Carolina Botanical Garden on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.

At the Kenan Science Library, UNC community members can check out something a little bit more organic than books. 

In the library's BeAM Makerspace, there is a small wooden dresser with drawers containing packets of plant seeds — like tomato and basil — ready for student use. And though it is outside the busy spring planting season, the seed check-out log in the library is full. 

Jordan Green, a science and technology librarian at UNC, helped start the library in the spring of 2022 as a graduate assistant. 

She said that it fit in well with UNC’s existing environmental resources like Edible Campus and the N.C. Botanical Garden, and that it was another “hands-on, do-it-yourself resource” for the library's makerspace. 

The seed library runs on an honor system — users write down what they took so Green and other employees know what to restock. It is free and open to the public. 

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Various rare and common seeds are sent to the North Carolina Botanical Garden for preservation.

“We have had folks come in asking about specific types of plants, things that might grow well in containers for a dorm if they don't have an outdoor garden and plants that are useful for making tea and herbs,” Green said

Recently, the seed library added tiny free terracotta pots with the seed envelopes and has hosted pot-painting events. The library also offers gardening and climate information to aid visitors with their plant ventures.  

“That’s one of our goals, to teach people about native plants and gardening, and to also preserve heirloom and native plant varieties via circulation,” Green said.

Just down the hill from the library, the N.C. Botanical Garden has a large collection of native, common and rare plant seeds that has been cultivated for decades. They also work to protect plants classified under the Endangered Species Act.

Mike Kunz, the director of conservation programs at the garden, said the stored seeds begin as collected plants, which are then cleaned to harvest the "pure seed."

After this, the seeds are dried in a room with controlled temperature and humidity and then vacuum sealed and put into chest freezers, which are the home of the seed collection.

“It has grown from a handful of species and a few dozen collections, to being now about 80 species represented in the rare plant seed bank and about 600 collections,” Kunz said. “Our common species seed bank is about 250 species and 600 or 700 collections now, so it's really grown.”

The seed bank started in the 1980s through the garden's partnership with the Center for Plant Conservation, a group of botanical gardens and arboreta across the United States.

Since then, the garden has worked with many other groups on local and national scales to use their collection to restore plant life. 

In North Carolina, seeds have been taken from the vault to restore a number of nature reserves, including Penny's Bend Nature Preserve in Durham. After the removal of invasive pine trees that were damaging the habitat, native plugs, or baby plants, were added with the help of the seed bank. Over recent years, projects like these have become routine for the garden. 

“It's been a lot of fun,” Kunz said. “Again, I'd be guessing a little bit on numbers, so I'll stick with thousands, but it's probably actually in the tens of thousands of plugs over the last three years that we've grown and gotten back out on all these nature preserves.”

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Growing seeds are photographed at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, a site of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, on Monday Dec. 4, 2023.

The garden is also working to understand and restore plants in North Carolina that are extinct or on the verge of extinction.

But, according to garden tour guide Fran Whaley, the seeds have traveled beyond the state's borders.

"When Hurricane Sandy came through some years ago in New Jersey, it just wiped out a lot of the plants along the coast, but we had the seeds of those plants," she told The Daily Tar Heel. 

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With help from a grant and other gardens in New York and New England, people from the garden were able to go to New Jersey and replant East Coast native vegetation along damaged coastlines. 

Kunz said that while the seed bank is an important backup, the first priority is to keep the wild population alive. Wild plant populations are currently facing many threats such as global climate change, rapid urbanization and population growth that puts natural areas under pressure. 

“Keeping natural areas and even restored areas that have high ecological function is really important for, not just nature, but for humans as well," Kunz said.

@jacksonfromm29

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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