200-Year-Old Seeds Brought To Life At Kew Gardens.

By Graham Spicer | 21 September 2006
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photo of an old embossed leather wallet with some packets of seeds in front of it

19th century traveller Jan Teerlink's case where the seeds were found. Photo Elly Vaes

Scientists have defied all expectations by germinating a batch of 200-year-old seeds at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

The 32 different species of seeds were recently discovered at The National Archives, also in Kew, by a guest researcher from the Royal Dutch Library.

Roelof van Gelder found 40 small packets of the seeds stored in a red leather bound notebook inscribed with the name Jan Teerlink. Teerlink was a Dutch merchant believed to have collected them during an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in 1804.

photo of a seed which has just germinated

16 of the 25 liparia villosa seeds successfully germinated. Photo Elly Vaes

“This is a fantastic result,” said seed ecologist Matt Daws at Kew Gardens. “The seed was so old and had been stored in some dubious conditions until its arrival at The National Archives, including a ship and the Tower of London. We really did not expect to get anything.”

A selection of the seeds was sent to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, which is staffed by Royal Botanic Gardens, and three of the 32 species have sprouted into healthy young plants in the greenhouses there.

The first to germinate were the legume liparia villosa – out of the 25 planted, 16 sprouted. Next to emerge were labelled protea conocarpa on the original packet but the Kew scientists now think that they are a species of leucospermum. Only one out of the eight planted germinated.

photo of five brown seeds

These leucospermum seeds were incorrectly identified on their original packets. Photo Elly Vaes

The third to grow remains a mystery, however, although it is known to be a type of acacia. Only one of the two planted grew - it is already half a metre tall.

“We’ll have to wait until it flowers to find out what species it is. If it’s a tree, we may have a long wait,” said Matt.

Microscopic examination on the unsuccessful seeds revealed old insect damage. All the seeds were carbon dated by Kew’s science team to verify their age and DNA is being extracting from both the live and dead seeds to complete the study.

photo of a tall thin plant

This was the third type of plant to grow, but scientists at Kew aren't sure what it is yet. Photo Elly Vaes

Apart from its historical interest, the project is also encouraging for the future of seed collections, explained Matt:

“According to models of seed survival, even the toughest cereal seeds should have died after so long in such a condition. If seed can survive that long in poor conditions, then that’s good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions.”

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