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Portugal's plants are under attack: luckily they have a safe room

Lisbon's seed bank protects the future of Portugal's flora.

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Portugal's plants are under attack: luckily they have a safe room

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Climate change, natural disasters, increased pollution, overexploitation of soils or human interference in the natural habitat.

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"Thousands of seeds of a single species can be kept alive for tens or hundreds of years""

Maria Manuela Sim-Sim Curator, Seed Bank A. L. Belo Correia

There are many threats facing Portugal’s unique mix of flora, but the Seed Bank A. L. Belo Correia, in the center of the city of Lisbon, has been working since 2001 to conserve and protect the present so that it can one day save the future.

In this bank, the deposits are more than 3,700 seed samples, aggregating more than 1200 species and subspecies of autochthonous Portuguese plants, that are kept in a ‘safe’ in the form of a four-square-meter refrigerator.

With temperatures as low as -18º C, this giant refrigerator preserves more than a third of Portuguese flora and about 60 percent of the protected species of mainland Portugal.

Everything happens under the supervision of the curator Maria Manuela Sim-Sim and her assistant Domitila Brocas, who carry out the process of identification, analysis and preservation.

“This is not the only one, but it’s the oldest seeds bank of autochthonous species in Portugal and is a national member of ENSCONET-The European Native Seed Conservation Network, the European consortium that brings together 30 seeds banks. The bank applies international standards for the collection and conservation of seeds to maximize quality, longevity and genetic diversity. Thousands of seeds of a single species can be kept alive for tens or hundreds of years”, says the curator.

As in a traditional bank, different clients end up requiring different forms of treatment.

In the seed bank, likened to a sort of Noah’s ark, the physiology of plants determines the process.

According to Maria Manuela Sim-Sim, the samples, which are stored in glass tubes covered with cotton and silica gel, are divided into three areas: orthodox, intermediate and recalcitrant.

“Orthodox seeds retain their viability over a long period of time under conservation conditions, that is low water content and temperatures below zero, while recalcitrant seeds tolerate only partial drying and never below 18-45 % or temperatures well below 0° C. Intermediate seeds, however, do not belong to any of the categories described and can tolerate low water contents, but do not withstand negative temperatures”.

In a country characterized by the diversity of its flora, where Atlantic, European, Mediterranean and African species coexist, Maria Manuela Sim-Sim warns that “loss of biodiversity is a reality” and that “there is a significant percentage of species” that face the threat of extinction. Given the numerous risks, the curator of the Seeds Bank A.L. Belo Correia adds that “safeguarding this diversity for the long-term future is an increasingly urgent challenge” for the Portuguese.

Thus, the future requires “approaches that integrate the protection, development and sustainable use of natural resources” of Portugal. “I would like to reach 2020 with 75 percent of the threatened flora safeguarded”.

By João Paulo Godinho