Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Seed Bank

Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Seed Bank

December 8, 2009
Photo by: Global Crop Diversity Trust / Flickr. At Pavlovsk, a sign designating a section of ornamental perennials (left), and Russian plum (Prunus rossica) (right).

In the early 20th century, Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov cultivated a preserve that would become one of the world's largest repositories of rare seeds and crops. The collection represented a vast botanic diversity—Vavilov spent two decades traveling five continents gathering seeds. His work was unprecedented, including the discovery of apple tree thickets in present-day Kazakhstan, which he identified as the ancestor to modern varieties ("I had stumbled upon the center of origin for the apple," he wrote). Along with thousands of berries and fruits, Vavilov brought the apples to his research preserve in Pavlovsk, just outside St. Petersberg (then known as Leningrad). At the collection's height, it included 200,000 species. 

It was around this time that World War II brought a German invasion and a blockade to the Russian city. During the siege of Leningrad, the scientists at Pavlovsk had an unfortunate opportunity to demonstrate the worth of their work—twelve of them succumbed to starvation, rather than consume the collection they were guarding. 

Many of seeds and crops survived, and the seed bank now includes hundreds of acres of field collections with more than 5,000 varieties of fruits. There are more than a thousand varieties of strawberries from more than 40 countries, and just as many black currant varieties from 30 countries; 600 apple types from 35 countries; hundreds of gooseberries, cherries, plums, red currants, and raspberries. About 90% of the varieties are endemic to the Pavlovsk collection, meaning they are not found anywhere else. 

Leonid Burmistrov, a researcher at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, stands amid orange "sorbus" or "mountain ash." This fruit and others could be destroyed if the Russian government sells the land in the village of Pavlovsk. Photo credit: David Greene/NPR.

Today, Nikolai Vavilov is considered the father of modern seed banks, and some scientists say that the biodiversity of his collection could be crucial in ensuring the future of global food security. Scientists rushed to its support in 2010, when the Russian government announced plans to sell the land to real estate developers. A world of notable defenders pled a case to save the collection. Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says the institute's collections are sacrosanct, as is the legacy of the scientists who died defending them. "In doing so, they provided a real model of drawing a line in the sand for biodiversity that's inspired everyone." Cary Fowler, a conservationist who runs the Global Crop Diversity Trust said the loss of the collection would be “the largest intentional, preventable loss of crop diversity in my lifetime.”

Between these pleas, and a Twitter campaign appealing to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the collection's defenders have won a stay. In August 2010, a month before the land was slated to be cleared, Medvedev's Twitter account tweeted that the appeals had been noted and the president had ordered an 11th hour inquiry. 

Two years later, the issue remains mired in courts, and the land's future is still uncertain. Meanwhile, the Pavlovsk collection remains active, both helpfully repatriating seeds to their native countries, and collecting new ones. Last year, scientists collected 120 tons of seed potatoes, all local varieties. This year, they are experimenting with grain crosses. The new varieties are dedicated to Nikolai Vavilov, in the year that would have been his 125th birthday.