Seeds of Hope: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership Preserves Our Plants For The Future

“If you’ve ever had the chance to look at a seed under a microscope, you’ll know that each seed is completely different and unique, with different shapes and textures to aid in dispersal. But that’s not the only reason they’re special: they’re also time capsules or small packages that contain all the genetic information needed to start a brand new plant – one small jar of seeds can contain enough genetic diversity to restore a population.”

SANBI Seed Conservation Manager Victoria Wilman speaking at a symposium celebrating the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.

Those were the words of Victoria Wilman, Seed Conservation Programme Manager at the SANBI Wild Plant Seedbank, at a symposium held at Kirstenbosch Gardens in May 2024, celebrating the fruits of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership in South Africa – a 24-year partnership between the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), Kew.

When it comes to conservation, seed banking is one of the more effective – and efficient – methods of preserving biodiversity.

There are tens of thousands of seed-bearing plants around the world, producing a vast amount of seeds. About 80% of those seeds can be dried and banked (“orthodox” species), with the remaining 20% (“recalcitrant” species) tending to be larger, fleshier seeds from the humid tropics. And seeds are much easier to store than plants, for a variety of reasons.

“Seed banking allows us to store a very high diversity in a very small volume using very few samples,” explained Jo Osborne, the MSBP Conservation Partnership Coordinator at Kew. “The seeds can be stored for decades or even centuries, and can easily be made available for research and species recovery. If seed conservation is done with care, there really is little to no risk – and the benefits can be significant.”

Jo Osborne, Kew MSBP Conversation Coordinator, still finds inspiration in examining seeds.

It’s not a silver bullet, however. It’s not just about collecting and storing a handful of seeds and forgetting about them.

“A room full of frozen seeds is not a forest (or fynbos habitat, for that matter). We need a baseline amount of seeds just to ensure that we have something we can hope to restart a population from, if the worst happens. We need more seeds to monitor their viability over the years. We need yet more seeds to be able to conduct research. And finally we need to duplicate collections – just in case. Ten thousand seeds all in all, perhaps.”

To meet this need, dedicated teams of SANBI Wild Plant Seed Bank seed collectors travel to remote regions of South Africa to collect seeds from species at risk of extinction. These seeds, along with herbarium specimens and field data, are meticulously preserved and sent to the MSBP in the United Kingdom, where they are looked after and stored at -20°C, ensuring their viability for generations to come. Soon South Africa’s seeds will be kept at the SANBI Wild Plant Seedbank at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, Cape Town and duplicates will be sent to RBG, Kew as a backup.

The Project has partnered with many local organisations, including the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW), the City of Cape Town, South African National Parks and many more – and as a core biobank of the Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa (BBSA), the SANBI Wild Plant Seedbank has shared its expertise with other biobanks in South Africa and abroad.

“We’re at a pivotal moment in plant conservation,” Osborne noted. “We have a climate crisis, massive biodiversity loss, and many other challenges. But seed banks have a role to play in finding nature-based solutions to climate change, in halting extinctions and restoring degraded ecosystems, and in contributing to human resilience across Africa.”

Over 24 years of partnership, MBSP South Africa has banked hundreds of thousands of South African seeds, provided field data vital for Red Listing assessments, shared knowledge of plant conservation with local communities, and even rediscovered plant species previously thought extinct.

“We have already had to use seeds from the seedbank to restore species that have gone extinct in the wild, and have had some successes – like Marasmodes undulata, which has been grown and planted in the wild again,” Wilman said. “But too many other species are gone forever, with no known ex-situ collection. We need to keep working together to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other plant – to keep saving our seeds and safeguarding our species for future generations.”

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership Celebration brought together the seed banking community in South Africa.


SANBI Wild Plant Seedbank Version 2.0: Bringing our seeds home

 There are, of course, many challenges that still need to be addressed, and many mysteries that still need to be resolved. How do we deal with recalcitrant species? How do we identify the ideal conditions for seed germination? How can we ensure that seeds aren’t just stored, but are used for research and species recovery under local conditions?

These challenges are not easily addressed – but one important step will be the launch of South Africa’s own local seed bank repository next month.

With the support of Kew, SANBI and the BBSA, the old seedroom at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is being revamped, renovated and updated.

Soon, the building should have a sorting facility (to professionally organise collections as they come from the field), a seed processing laboratory for cleaning and processing seeds and  a large dry room and freezers (to properly prepare and bank seeds at -20°c), A germination laboratory will be built and equipped to test whether and how banked seeds can be returned to the soil. Cryopreservation equipment will follow, and ultimately a research centre as well (where seeds can be studied by trained staff and visiting researchers). 

We wanted this facility to be up to international standards, so we can conduct world-class research, build up strong partnerships, and train the next generation of seed bankers in South Africa and beyond,” Wilman said.

The new SANBI Wild Plant Seedbank will steer a South African network, serve as a seed supply centre as well as a centre of research, and help train the local seed bank community.

“A seedbank is essentially a service area,” said Osborne. “We have to consider who will need these seeds, and what they will need them for – and how we can meet those needs. So this is the beginning of an exciting new phase for the MSBP, and we’re looking forward to it.”

It’s only the beginning.

“It’s tiny in comparison to the MSB in the UK – but for us it’s a huge thing, and we see it as the start of our journey – a test of the seedbank it will eventually be. We’re going to bring our seeds home – and grow from there.”


For more information about the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership South Africa and the SANBI Wild Plant Seedbank, please contact Victoria Wilman, SANBI Seed Conservation Programme Manager, at

What are biodiversity biobanks?

Biodiversity biobanks are repositories of biologically relevant resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, eggs and sperm, other tissues including blood, DNA extracts, microbial cultures (active and dormant), and environmental samples containing biological communities….