Separated from the Seeds


Throughout the world, closures and lockdowns aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted many people’s lives and work. As a global institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden does research around the world, making travel restrictions a major hindrance. The “stay at home” order means staff has lost access to the Garden’s herbarium and labs, too.

But of course, they’ve adapted. Some are using the time to catch up on data analysis. Others are completing manuscripts, which communicate the findings of their work, and floras, a descriptive list of plants in a particular region. And in more remote locations, like protected sites in Madagascar, conservation efforts go on.

“None of us are running out of stuff we can do,” says Jim Miller , Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation.  “Everybody’s got a laptop, we’re all able to work.”

Just before the “stay at home” order went into effect, staff at the Garden’s Seed Bank, located at Shaw Nature reserve, were finishing annual freezer inventory. 

Seed banks are a conservation tool used for long-term storage of genetic diversity of a large number of plant species. Seed moves in and out of the collection throughout the year as researchers conduct studies or add to the collection. The inventory is a chance to check on everything physically in the freezer and make sure it’s represented in the database. 

After they completed inventory, the staff planned to add new labeling to include QR codes, which would reduce inventory mistakes.

But, like many other projects, that got put on hold when staff was no longer able to access the lab.

“At this point we will likely put these tasks off until next year. Our volunteers would be helping with these projects as well as updating associated data in the database,” Seed Bank Manager Meg Engelhardt said in the spring. “We miss our volunteers dearly!”

Putting the labeling project on hold unfortunately means there are more possibilities for mistakes in the curation of the Seed Bank, but given the circumstances, there isn’t much of a choice.

The seeds stored in the Seed Bank are still safe and secure. During shut down, Seed Bank Specialist Katie Pittman was able to check on the collection at least once a week. She made sure the equipment was all running properly and tended to some of the seeds that were in preparation for storage. She was also still able to conduct viability tests by germinating seeds that have been in freezer storage to track any loss that might happen while in the seed bank.

“Some of these tests are on seed collections that are very rare and irreplaceable so luckily she is able to go in once a week and keep those tests running,” Engelhardt explained.

At home, Engelhardt worked on researching target species to collect seeds from later in the year. She did have to miss some early field work, but fortunately for her research, most of her collecting is done in the fall. Engelhardt is also able to work on data cleanup on new specimens added to the seed bank collection while she’s at home.

As restrictions have eased, Engelhardt has been able to return to the Seed Bank one day a week. She’s also been able to return to the field for collecting trips, as long as she travels alone and doesn’t stay overnight. Pittman is able to continue her work running viability tests on seed collections. But both are continuing to miss volunteers, who help with many tasks in the lab.

“We have definitely had to reduce our workload compared to what we had planned to complete this year,” Engelhardt says. “There is increased mental load to re-learn and complete a variety of tasks that would normally be covered by our well trained and dedicated volunteers.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of our lives, the Garden’s critical work conserving plant life goes on. These efforts would not be possible without your support. Consider helping us continue our mission in these uncertain times by becoming a member or making a donation.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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