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Feature - issue #2

Banking Our Future

Words and photography by Harriet Gendall

Ethnobotanist Harriet Gendall joinsa team of scientists on a quest to bank the endangered flora of Kyrgyzstan. Their ambitious venture reveals how seed banking not only supports the flourishing of global biodiversity but can help germinate more meaningful alliances between people and plants.

Sergey collects Caragana leucophloea Pojark.

On a steep, hot hillside overlooking the jadegreen Kökömeren river in central Kyrgyzstan, the sharp smell of onions fills the air. We’re collecting Allium seeds. The sap gets under our fingernails as we pinch off their globe-shaped heads.

Mountains form over 90% of Kyrgyzstan’s dazzling, variegated landscape. Although a relatively small country, it harbours a staggering 4,000 species of plants, around one tenth of which are endemic, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world. This makes it a significant biodiversity hotspot in Central Asia. Wild Alliums - ancestors of cultivated onions, garlic and chives, and the many striking ornamental varieties beloved by horticulturalists - are particularly abundant here, with over 85 recorded species. But we’re not collecting Alliums for the garden.

Collecting Allium galanthum.

Allium galanthum flower.

Kyrgyzstan’s mountain ecosystems are becoming increasingly fragile. Forest cover has more than halved in the last 50 years, while heavy livestock, grazing, and mining, along with glacial retreat and extended periods of heat and drought, are also taking their toll on the landscape. This threatens the future survival of its rich plant life, with many species at risk of extinction. Of particular concern are its endemic species, which are irreplaceable in terms of worldwide biodiversity.

Seed banking is one way of tackling this problem. Acting as an insurance policy against extinction, a seed bank is a library of plant genetic resources that can be used for reintroducing endangered species and developing research that can deepen our understanding of plants’ individual conservation needs, characteristics and use potential.

Seeding flower heads of Allium galanthum.

Seeds of Oxytropis susamyrensis.

In 2005, the Institute of Biotechnology of the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan (IBNAS) began an ambitious project to bank the country’s flora. Joining the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, an international conservation project coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew, England, IBNAS became part of a network of seed collecting initiatives in over 95 countries. Since then, its small team has made impressive strides, banking around 30% of the nation’s plants, but, because they are by nature the most challenging to find, many of its rare and endangered species remain uncollected.

Georgy and Sergey check the list of target species.

Collecting wild honeysuckle (Lonicera olgae).

Seduced by the landscape of Central Asia and a desire to experience seed collecting first-hand, I’ve joined three biologists from IBNAS - Tatyana, Sergey and Antonina - along with renowned local botanist Georgy Laskov and our driver Sasha, on a week-long seed saving expedition.Traversing the dusty roads in a small but diligently packed van, we collect along the way, camping in a different place each night.

We’ve followed the Bishkek-Osh Highway out of the sprawling capital of Bishkek and over the 3500, metre Töö Ashuu pass - through summer pastures dotted with yurts, where nomadic families graze their livestock during the warmer months. Some sell kumis at the roadside - a drink made from fermented horse milk. Turning off the highway we weave our way through a terracotta ravine, deep into the Naryn region.

Caragana leucophloea seed pods.

Setting up camp beside the Kökömeren river.

Georgy has the list of target species. He spends every summer botanising here, so has a clear mental map of what plants we can expect to find, and where. Whenever he spots or suspects we are close to something of interest, we pull over and he sprints off the road to get a closer look. Once he’s identified the plant and confirmed it has seed,the rest of us spread out to gather it.

The material varies in size and form. Sometimes it’s fleshy fruits, such as those of wild blackcurrant or honeysuckle. Other times it’s dry pods, like the needle-shaped twists of Caragana leucophloea, or the hardened shells of Halimodendron halodendron, which jangle loudly as we wrestle them from spine-studded branches. Furry Oxytropis susamyrensis pods, on the other hand, must be swept up delicately from the ground. We stop when we have sufficient material - making sure not to over-collect, which might damage the local population - or when we’re beaten by the glare of the sun. It’s hard to imagine that in just a few months these sites will be under snow.

Georgy examines Sisymbrium brassiciforme.

Sergey collects Anaphalis racemifera on the ascent to Song Köl lake.

After several days we’re proficient at making camp.The tents go up in minutes and we cool off in the icy river,then gather around the folding table to cook and share a hearty meal. Tatyana has brought along a large quantity of home-distilled vodka, and we routinely raise three toasts each dinnertime - to the day’s work,friendship, and the night sky. Humble and unassuming, it turns out Georgy has a fantastic sense of humour, and an eccentric penchant for pairing condensed milk with cured sausage. After dark, Antonina, Sergey and I play cards under a vivid canopy of stars. The van fills with ever-bulging plant presses and bags bursting with seeds, which we pile on our laps. We pass countless Lada Nivas (small sturdy Soviet-era 4x4s) and curious cemeteries that overlook the road like miniature citadels, crowded with clay-domed mausoleums. The landscape continues to morph through deserts of white gypsum and deep-mauve rock with splatterings of luminous yellow lichen, and into summer pastures again. Our final collecting site is on the ascent to Song Köl lake, where, in a verdant alpine valley, we scramble across a slope gathering clumps of velvety Anaphalis racemifera.

The steep terracotta ravine through which the Kökömeren river runs.

Back in Bishkek, at the IBNAS laboratory, we untie each bag of seeds and spread them out to dry. Carpeting virtually every surface, they emit a lively aroma. Tiny flecks of agitated plant material are thrown into the air, drifting on shafts of sunlight filtered through the dim windows. After several weeks they will be ready for processing. As insurance, samples of each seed will be posted to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew, where they will be catalogued and stored in its underground vault. The rest remain at the IBNAS seed bank, packed into one of several standing freezers or - if highly endangered - stored in liquid nitrogen. The system is modest but effective.

Most plant genebanks have focused on crops. An early and stirring example is the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, established in 1926 by the Russian plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, whose brave scientists tragically starved to death while protecting its edible collections during the siege of Leningrad. Today several international organisations specialise in staple foods, such as the International Potato Center (Peru) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Mexico). However, the most extensive collection of cultivated plants is held at Svalbard Global Seed Vault which - concealed deep within the Arctic ice between Norway and the North Pole - has capacity for 4.5m samples and is designed to survive natural disasters and bombs.

Established in the year 2000, the UK-based Millennium Seed Bank at Kew instead focuses on non-cultivated seeds. It has promoted a phenomenal increase in the representation of wild plants in genebanks and - thanks to the work of partners such as IBNAS in Kyrgyzstan – is headed towards banking 25% of the world’s flowering plants by 2020.

Inside the Institute of Biotechnology in Bishkek.

Drying seeds at the Institute of Biotechnology.

There are many reasons why we should care about conserving floral diversity. Plants are integral to the wider ecosystem - recycling oxygen, nutrients and water, and forging mutualistic relationships with animals and fungi. Moreover, in our daily lives, they do much more than just feed us. They are the basis for building materials, fabrics, cosmetics, tools, medicine and more. Indeed, over 28,000 species have been recorded as medicinally useful.

In addition to their functional uses, the immense cultural and spiritual value that plants hold should not be underestimated. Some individual species are culture-defining: for example henna, lotus,or peyote. But we should also recognise the intrinsic worth of the plant world as a whole, in terms of our personal and visceral interrelations with it.This dimension is vitally important but less easy to grasp, especially when the modern condition frequently stifles our hands-on experience of nature.

Ex-situ conservation — that is, in a context removed from the natural habitat - is often criticised for being cold and clinical,for limiting plants’ evolutionary potential, and for perpetuating the notion that mankind has dominion over natural resources. However, this framing undervalues the genuine vibrancy of many seed banks and their potential to galvanise a profound appreciation for plants. As ethnobotanist Kay Lewis-Jones has observed - gathering, curating, investigating and caring for seeds is more than just scientific procedure.Through these processes we come to know plants more intimately, exercising our understanding of what it means to co-exist in this world with other life forms. Seed banks are not simply frozen gardens, they are fertile sites for enlivening the relationship between people and plants.

Looking down the ravine at our van and the Kökömeren river.

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