The Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank and National Tallgrass Prairie Preparation Laboratory

Banking on the Future by Making Deposits Now

Seed banking—conserving and storing species away from their original habitats—enables plants to escape threats imposed by destructive habitat changes including urbanization, climate change, invasive species, overharvest, and pollution. The seeds may then be used for research and, as the need arises, to restore native plant communities. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank safely houses seeds gathered from native plants throughout the Midwest and Great Plains, with the aim of banking at least 10,000 seeds from each of 1,500 native species.

PHOTO: Plants of ConcernHow Seed Banking Benefits You—and the World

Banking the seeds of native plants is very similar to preserving the germplasm of our nation’s agricultural treasures. In fact, most of the world’s seed banks exist to preserve crop germplasm, while only a handful serve to bank the seeds of native plants. Also known as ex situ (off-site) conservation, seed banking native species guards against species' disappearance in the wild and is an important way to conserve plant diversity. As Pati Vitt, Ph.D., the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank’s curator, points out, climate change occurred naturally over millennia, with most organisms either adapting or migrating in the face of such environmental change. Today, however, changes are occurring very rapidly and many species may not be able to adapt. In addition, human development blocks the natural pathways plants have used for millennia to migrate in response to climate change.

PHOTO: seed sortingWhile the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank collects seeds in states across the Midwest and northern Great Plains—14 states in all, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan, and Iowa —we also belong to a nationwide conservation initiative called Seeds of Success. This program’s mission is to collect and conserve native plant seeds to be used to revitalize and restore habitats in the United States.

PHOTO: seed bankThe majority of the Garden’s seeds are banked on site; however, a portion of our collections are sent to the international Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, and to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, which provide “backup” storage for all kinds of seeds in case of catastrophes that might devastate crops or habitats, or destroy other seed banks.

Locally, the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank is working with the City of Chicago to create a network of urban farmers who receive training in native plant propagation, harvesting, and seed cleaning through already established community garden programs.

Case Studies

PHOTO: Pati Vitt monitoring plantsDr. Vitt and Emily Yates are assessing shifts in rare grassland plant species’ geographic distributions in response to climate change. They are using GIS*-based species distribution modeling with presence-only locality data to predict distributions for 17 rare plant species in the Midwest. Along with Kayri Havens, Ph.D., director of plant science and conservation at the Garden, Dr. Vitt and Ms. Yates are also discovering potential reestablishment sites for species affected by climate change by using the GIS-based species habitat modeling, coupled with a GIS-based decision support system they are in the process of creating. They are aided in their research by Plants of Concern, a rare-plant monitoring system, and vPlants, a virtual herbarium. Dr. Vitt and Ms. Yates are also extending the current seed bank database into a fully spatially referenced geodatabase.

*Geographic information systems

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take action:
What can you do?

PHOTO: seeds

Change your actions:
Choose local, native seeds when you garden and bank your own seeds for future plantings. And don’t forget to look for opportunities to encourage conservation of natural environments.

PHOTO: cleaning seeds

Change your community:
Volunteer for the Seeds of Success program. Volunteers typically work at the Garden to help process seed and herbarium specimen collections from across the Midwest and Great Plains states. Among other tasks, this involves hand- and machine-cleaning seeds, and weighing, counting, and freezing seed collections for storage in the seed bank.

In the Laboratory

Healthy seeds brought to the Seed Quarantine Room are separated from other plant material, then cleaned and analyzed for moisture content, weighed, and counted. A fume hood ensures that any contaminants are sequestered and filtered out. All but about 25 seeds (which are sent to the Reproductive Biology Laboratory) are slowly dried to 15 percent humidity, carefully labeled and packaged in heat-sealed foil containers, and—finally—stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank at -20 degrees Celsius. The Chicago Botanic Garden has committed to collecting 30 million seeds from 1,500 native species across the Midwest.

Staff Scientists

Pati Vitt, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist, Plant Demography
Manager, Seeds of Success

Emily Yates, M.S.
Seed Bank Coordinator, Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank

Dave Sollenberger
Seed Bank Conservation Specialist
Restoration Ecologist