Inside Winterbourne’s Seedbank

In the 1970s and 1980s, Winterbourne was home to a pioneering seed bank full of weird and wonderful seeds from around the world.  In this article, student Zoe Smith explores its fascinating history.

Hello! I’m Zoe, a student at the University of Birmingham, and over the past few months, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to volunteer at Winterbourne, as part of my degree course. My work focused on Winterbourne’s seed bank, which dates back to the 1970s.  Some of the boxes of seeds are still housed in the collection store. Seed banking is important because it preserves genetic diversity, ensuring that a wide range of plant species are available for future use, and protected against environmental changes. Throughout the placement, I have been looking through the Winterbourne archives and material online to uncover Winterbourne’s seed banking history, in order to understand the role it played in plant genetic resource conservation.

Seed bank boxes
Seed bank boxes

The seed bank at Winterbourne was developed in the 1970s under Professor Jack Hawkes to conserve a variety of plant species, from ornamental plants to food crops. The material in the seed bank would have been provided by Hawkes and through an international seed exchange program, which Winterbourne actively participated in. During the winter, botanic gardens would circulate lists of the species they were prepared to exchange. This was very useful for Winterbourne, as it allowed them to get access to live, viable seeds which were usually very difficult to find. The botanic gardens they exchanged with can be seen in the map below.

Map showing the botanical gardens that Winterbourne has exchanged seeds with

Seed exchange programs play a crucial role in expanding and diversifying seed collections. This is especially important for maintaining genetic diversity, which is essential for conservation. A broader genetic base also offers a better chance of success in plant breeding, leading to higher crop yields and improved food security. Exchanging seeds also acts as an insurance policy, ensuring that if seeds are lost in one location due to a disaster, they remain available in another.

The seed bank and gardens at Winterbourne were also integral to the research and teaching of the former Botany department at the University of Birmingham. It was a key resource for postgraduate students studying the MSc course in plant genetics. The facilities at Winterbourne, including the seed bank, the GRACE lab (now the Winterbourne Collections Centre) and the service greenhouses were used in student projects to elucidate the origins and evolution of a number of crop plants including potato, beet, lentil and spinach – information which still remains internationally recognised. Staff and students also contributed to national and international policy issues regarding the roles of botanic gardens in conservation and education.

Another interesting aspect of the course was its international reach, attracting students from all over the world, as shown on the map below. This is important, because the greatest diversity of plants, and the species most at risk, are found in the tropics and subtropics, the very regions in which many of the students were from. Students had a good practical training as well as a sound theoretical background in gene bank work that could then be implemented in the places that needed it the most.

Map showing the home nations of Winterbourne's MSc students
Map showing the home nations of Winterbourne's MSc students

The course’s legacy is also evident in the international work on conservation in the years that followed. For instance, in 1996, many Birmingham graduates attended an international conference on plant genetic resources, participating as members and even leaders of their national delegations. This speaks volumes about the course’s global influence on conservation efforts, showcasing how the research and education stemming from the course and the seed bank helped shape conservation practices worldwide.

Professor Jack Hawkes also played a part in advancing plant genetic resource conservation through his work at Winterbourne’s seed bank, with a particular focus on the tuber-bearing Solanums (potato). He went on many expeditions to Latin America, focusing on the wild species as they were significantly more threatened, and bought back parts of his collection to Winterbourne’s seed bank. Through his research, he aimed to determine where the potato came from and wanted to develop new strains that were resistant to disease and drought that could be grown in developing countries. He later hosted an international symposium on the Solanaceae at the University, where the knowledge he had developed throughout his research at Winterbourne was shared with leading experts in the field.

Prof. Jack Hawkes
Prof. Jack Hawkes

Hawkes was also influential in promoting the development of seed banks in botanic gardens. In his paper ‘A strategy for seed banking in botanic gardens’ presented at an IUCN international conference, he stressed the need to conserve rare and threatened species. He emphasised that, while gene bank activities appeared to be outside the capabilities of most botanic gardens, they were indeed feasible and well worth the effort. His demonstration of this feasibility would have been influenced by his work at Winterbourne, which suggests that Winterbourne’s seed bank had a significant impact on conservation practices in other botanic gardens worldwide.

During the last few weeks of my placement, I conducted a practical experiment, sowing some of the seeds from the seed bank with help from the Head Gardener, Dan. The species selected for this experiment were Purpurea (Daisy family), Pennisetum (grass family), Salvia hispanica L. (mint family), Solanaceae (nightshade family) and Cucurbita (gourd family). Unfortunately the seeds we planted did not germinate which indicates that they are no longer viable. This is because they weren’t kept in the proper conditions after the seed bank closed. While these were not the results we had hoped for, it does highlight the importance of storing collections under optimal conditions, including the maintenance of low humidity levels (below 8%) and cold temperatures (-20°C). Developing in vitro seed banking was also something Hawkes worked on when he was at Winterbourne, further highlighting the importance of his research and the seed bank. 

While Winterbourne’s seed bank is no longer operational, in the past it facilitated seed exchange, research, and education. It left a legacy and influenced global efforts to preserve and utilise plant genetic resources.

Zoe Smith
BSc Geography Student

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