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South Coast is home to a bank which trades in seeds

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Rare Plant Biologist Heather Schneider with the garden's massive seed collection. Work is underway to digitally catalog the estimated 1.5 million seed collection.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is updating data for its 1.5 million seed bank, which provides insurance that endangered plants won't become extinct.

It’s a strange sight in the parking lot of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. A motor whirrs, creating below freezing temperatures inside of a giant walk-in freezer. The freezer is here as part of the Garden’s little know efforts to insure some species of the state’s plants don’t go extinct, with help from a massive seed bank.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Rare Plant Biologist Heather Schneider takes us inside the freezer.

"We're about to go into a walk-in freezer that -10 Fahrenheit," said Schneider. "The theory behind conservation seed banks is really putting seeds into a cryogenic slumber. We dry them out, and we get them real cold so their metabolic rate gets much lower than normal, and that helps us expand their life span."

The freezer is filled with plastic bins, which are in turn filled with packets of seeds. It’s a bit overwhelming. There are an estimated 1.5 million seeds in the freezer.

The garden has been collecting seeds since the 1980’s. It’s one of a half dozen seed banks in the state. They are insurance, so to speak, that a fire or other disaster doesn’t completely wipe out a rare species.

The Botanic Garden received a federal grant to better organize, and digitally catalog its collection. It’s easier to do it in the portable freezer than in the Botanic Garden’s freezer in its conservation center.

Some of the estimated 1.5 million seeds in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's seed bank.

But, the conservation work they do is important.

Preparing seeds to become a part of the seed bank takes place in a building across the street from the Botanic Garden’s public areas. There a special lab in the Pritzlaff Conservation Center.

Kevin Mason is a rare plant technician who’s at work in the lab. He’s looking though a microscope at a tiny string of seeds.

"I am looking through the microscope at the seed of salt marsh bird's beak," said Mason. "It's a really rare plant which only grows in salt marshes in Southern California."

"I am in the process of cleaning the seed," Mason added. "There's a lot of sand in this collection, because it comes from a salt marsh."

Mason admits it’s work which requires lots of patience.

While the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is known to the community as an interesting and educational place to spend a few hours, research into, and conservation of plants is a big part of its mission.

"It's a huge honor," said Schneider, the biologist. "Everything we do at the garden is in the service of plants, and this is one of the things that we can offer to California's rare plants."