SPLAT! A sopping sponge sails through the air, hurled by a grinning child dressed as a dandelion. As the next petal-headed child in the growing queue takes aim, the soggy victim, teacher Trudy Pringle, blinks the water out of her eyes and asks herself why she ever signed up for this water torture. The reason: a rare but rather unremarkable-looking Namibian plant.
Thanks to Pringle and the children at Holly Trees Primary School, Essex, Plectranthus unguentarius, a member of the mint family, is now safe from the extinction that once threatened it. Through Kew's ‘Adopt a Seed, Save a Species' programme, its seeds are now safely stored in the vast vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at Wakehurst Place, the rural offshoot of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. It took a whole term of fundraising - cake stalls, penalty shootouts, a sleepover on the school field, ‘dress as a plant' day and, regretfully for some, a ‘sponge the teacher' event - to raise the £1,000 needed to take an endangered plant species through the seed banking process from field to vault.
Inspired by a visit to the botanical gardens and class discussions about ‘saving the world from man's destruction', the children were keen on doing something that would leave a legacy, says Pringle. ‘We chose this species because it benefits humans as well as the environment.' The roots of Plectranthus unguentarius are believed to be traditionally used by the local Ovahimba people who live in northwest Namibia, where the plant grows.
Banking seeds of endangered plant species provides insurance against their loss in the wild. ‘Freezing seeds at the bank means they could stay alive for hundreds of years, and the future of a species would be safe,' says Paul Smith, Head of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), the largest global plant conservation project in the world. Having a ‘backup copy' means species can be replaced if they disappear from the wild, and keeps future options open should they ever be needed for medicine, crop improvements or any of the many other uses people have for plants.
‘Plant-based solutions are part of the answer to all of the world's big environmental challenges - food security, water scarcity, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, energy and climate change,' says Smith. Seeds from the MSB are already being used to develop new crop varieties, as climate-resilient forestry species, for biofuel development and in habitat restoration.'
The roots of our dependence on plants run much deeper than solutions to modern problems. All of life on Earth ultimately relies upon plants; they form the basis of food chains, underpinning the ecology of all ecosystems. They not only provide us with food, medicines, fuel and materials to build houses with, but remove CO2 from the atmosphere, produce the oxygen we breathe, and purify the water we drink.
However, if plants hold the answers to our problems then we are in trouble: over a fifth of the Earth's 350,000 plant species are threatened with extinction by habitat loss and degradation, over-exploitation of natural resources, invasion of alien species and climate change.
Plants in peril
‘Time is of the essence,' says Smith. ‘Right now, local experts such as botanists and conservationists are hard at work targeting species which urgently need saving. Our global partners travel to diverse places, from dry land regions in Africa to limestone forests in China.' The precious seeds collected are then rushed to the seed bank to begin a long process of cleaning, drying, sorting and storing.
It's not always a straightforward process. It took Kew's seed collectors three arduous trips and 2,500 km of travel to find Holly Trees' Plectranthus unguentarius says Janet Terry, Processing Manager at the MSBP. Unseen since it was first described in 1959, the elusive plant was ironically finally discovered just five metres from the well-trodden path along which the botanists had trudged in search of Plectranthus habitat.
The rare African species is just one of 27,651 banked so far; a total of 1,654,753,608 seeds. But, says Smith, ‘the MSB is not a doomsday vault where seeds are stored under lock and key.' Kew are working to restore degraded habitats, reintroducing species back into the wild. Already they have reintroduced starfruit to the UK, and restored prairies in the USA and land ravaged by mining in Australia and Madagascar. When the raging Australian bush fires of 2009 blazed all of the remaining shining nematolepis (Nematolepis wilsonii), the MSBP were able to reintroduce the plant using the seeds they had fortunately already collected.
These are not the only success stories the MSBP has to tell. Last year, ahead of schedule and under budget, an endangered pink banana (Musa itinerans) signified the completion of their first target, to collect 10 per cent of the world's plant species. They are now ploughing into phase two of the project: to have 25 per cent of all plant species banked by 2020.
To reach their ambitious new target, the MSBP is relying on the support of donations. ‘The MSBP's enormous potential for future conservation can only be fulfilled with the support of the public and other funders,' says Smith. This is where the ‘Adopt a Seed, Save a Species' programme comes in.
Donors can ‘adopt a seed' for £25 or save a whole species outright by donating £1,000 or more. Kew staff set the wheels in motion, raising £1,000 to save the rare flycatcher bush (Roridula dentata) by cycling 50 gruelling miles from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew to the MSB in Sussex. Others have made personal and gift donations to save species and over 600 people have so far signed up to adopt a seed.
Rye St Antony in Oxford will be the next school to lay claim to saving a species from extinction. They've been busy designing and making upcycled botanical-themed products to sell at school events, activities which teacher Aimee Hartnell says has really captured the imagination of the pupils. ‘I was amazed to see how many ideas our pupils came up with ... and what better use could that creativity be put to than preserving the world around us?'
Holly Trees branching out
For Holly Trees school, the green crusade does not end with saving their African plant; they are now working towards Silver Eco Status under the Eco Schools international award programme, which helps schools embed sustainability into the heart of school life.
'We're collecting plastic bottles to build an ecological greenhouse and we've just started an orchard with money we won from Brentford in Bloom,' says Pringle. The school also grows its own vegetables, and even has its own bee hives.
‘The Save a Species project was one of the most positive things I've ever done in my teaching career.' The kids involved in it have now graduated to secondary school, but their legacy lives on.
Meanwhile, Kew's botanists continue their work in dry grasslands, tropical forests and mountain tops around the world, as well as at Wakehurst Place, to meet their 2020 target. They hope that more people will sign up to help them save the world's plant species. ‘Our continued domination of this planet is inevitable,' Smith says. ‘Plant species extinctions are not - there is no technological reason why any plant species should become extinct. You can help.'
Kara Moses is a freelance journalist
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