Surviving or Thriving

A new exhibition on ‘Plants and Us’

Four eyes, a rare photo of me wearing my specs!

All life depends on plants. I’ll say that again. All of life, and that means human life, depends on the survival of plants, and 25% are currently under threat, according to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst at a preview of a new exhibition.

The world is facing the challenges of climate change, habitat destruction, disease, and ensuring we have enough food and fuel to continue the human race. Apolocalyptic words. Indeed, it felt a little scary listening to Professor Alexandre Antonelli and his colleagues talking today about the necessity to store as many of the essential plants as possible, and now. I say esential, as it’s impossible to secure every single living plant. There are many that have not even been discovered, let alone identified yet.

Left to right : Richard Deverall, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens,  Kew;
          Professor Alexandre Antonelli; and Tony Sweeney, Director of Wakehurst presenting Surviving or Thrivingcredit Irene Caswell

The power of plants

Plants are critical to our survival, not only for food, fuel and shelter but also medicines. Did you know, for instance, that chemicals from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle have helped increase the chance of surviving childhood leukaemia from 10% to over 90%?

Plants also regulate our climate and environment. Knowing specific plants’ uses and benefits and, of course, those that threaten, such as Japanese Knotweed and some varieties of Rhododendron, is essential to understanding how human beings can harness the power of plants and conserve our planet.

“How do you know what it can do unless you know what it is”

The incubator lab is the first step in identifying a plant species. It is a ‘quarantine centre’ where seeds are received, identified and tested under sterile conditions to ensure not only the best quality ‘plant plasma’ for deep storage, but also that nothing nasty survives outside of the room. The Day of the Triffids pops into my mind here.

‘The Vault’ at the Millennium Seed Bank stores around 40,000 species of plants from around the world in deep freeze. The team carry out a quality check every 10 years. The 900 square metre vault, Professor Hugh Pritchard tells me, is able to accommodate 28 double-decker buses! Entry to the vault is through an air lock and the walls are three feet thick.

Plants in the Seed Bank labs and vaults are not stated on labelling, even by species, but instead samples are bar coded for security. The outside of the building has a futuristic appearance, as do the gleaming interior corridors and underground ‘bunker’ type accommodation for visiting science students and researchers. Reminscent ofLost in Space (1965-68).

Fantasy apart, the work that the scientists at the Millennium Seed Bank are engaged in is highly reassuring. They are keen though, to spread the word about the significance of exploring and protecting our plant resources, and our planet. The new exhibition Surviving or Thriving tells the story in a series of clear and fascinating displays (many pieces made from cardboard, even the ‘trees’), interactive screens, video and objects to communicate th global and local research from Kew’s groundbreaking State of the World’s Plants reports.

Surviving or Thriving – opens 22 March and runs until December at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst. Price included with gardens’ entry. www.kew.org/wakehurst

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