London: 200 years old South African seeds germinate

Liparia villosaFrom the BBC:

Seeds 200 years old breathe again

By Richard Black

Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Seeds which have been stored away since the time of George III have been persuaded into new life.

Scientists from the Millennium Seed Bank, operated by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, have induced seeds from three species to germinate.

They had been brought to Britain from South Africa by a Dutch merchant in 1803, and were found in a notebook stored in the National Archives.

Given this history, the team said it was surprised by their success.

“They had been kept under pretty poor conditions,” said Matt Daws, a seed ecologist with the Millennium Seed Bank, which is located at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.

“They’d been in a ship for a year, certainly for months, coming back from the Cape; then they’d been kept in the Tower of London for a number of years.

Only in the last 10 years have they been in controlled conditions.

“So I didn’t expect any of them to germinate,” he told the BBC News website, “and the three that did really are tough seeds.”

The three successes are a legume, Liparia villosa, and two species not yet identified, one a protea and the other an acacia.

The Liparia did particularly well, with 16 out of the 25 seeds progressing into plants.

See also here.

South African Babia ringens plant and malachite sunbird: here.

1 thought on “London: 200 years old South African seeds germinate

  1. DNA sequences and fossils show that the Proteaceae, a major group of Gondwanaland’s plants, spread by continental drift and transoceanic dispersal to modern continents

    Using DNA sequence data, botanists have shown that the large southern hemisphere plant family Proteaceae lived on the super-continent Gondwanaland almost 120 million years ago. As Gondwanaland broke up, it was originally thought that these plants merely moved with the newly formed continents. But now a new study published in the Journal of Biogeography has shown that, while this is the case for some of these plants, others are far too recent to have lived at the time when the super-continent broke up. They must therefore have dispersed across oceans to reach their current distribution ranges.

    Barker et al. apply a technique known as molecular dating to DNA sequences from over 40 representatives of the family from all southern continents. Using carefully selected fossils that are of known age and affinity, the mutation rate of the DNA sequences was calculated, allowing these scientists to provide age estimates for evolutionary events in the family. “Our results show that ancestors of some of the modern Proteaceae must have crossed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Thus, in Africa, for example, the spectacular genus Protea is truly Gondwanan, but 250 species from other genera that occur in the ‘fynbos’ vegetation (literally, ‘fine leaved shrubs’) of the highly diverse south-western Cape biodiversity hotspot are much younger, and have Australian relatives” says Nigel Barker of Rhodes University, South Africa.

    This new finding is important, as it challenges the dogma that gondwanaland’s biota merely moved in situ with the continents as they broke up. “We have to reconsider the possibility of transoceanic dispersal, as unlikely as it sounds for these plants” says Peter Weston, a researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Australia. While this is not the first study to invoke dispersal, it is the first on a major and diverse Gondwanan plant family with complex distribution patterns. These results are not only relevant to botanists. Ornithologists will be intrigued to find that the age of the Embothriinae, a bird-pollinated group of Proteaceae in Australia, coincides with the estimated age of the Honey-eaters, Australian nectar-feeding birds.

    Nigel Barker, the first author of the work enthuses “this study is the culmination of 11 years of work. I generated much of the data while working with Peter Weston at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney in 1996. It was only when I met up with Frank Rutschmann in Zurich, who had the expertise on molecular dating, and Hervé Sauquet, a postdoc at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom with an extensive knowledge of the fossil record of the Proteaceae, that it became possible to undertake this rigorous analysis. Sometimes science is about getting the right people with the right skills together in order to make advances”.


    To request a pdf of the full article contact Samantha Holford at Blackwell Publishing on +44 (0)1865 476269 or email

    Editor’s note
    1. Article: Nigel P. Barker, Peter H. Weston, Frank Rutschmann and Hervé Sauquet
    Molecular dating of the ‘Gondwanan’ plant family Proteaceae is only partially congruent with the timing of the break-up of Gondwana
    Journal of Biogeography.

    For further information on this research contact:
    Nigel P. Barker
    Department of Botany, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa.

    This research was initiated by two ‘Gondwanan’ botanists. The project commenced in South Africa, when Nigel Barker started working on Proteaceae, which then resulted in him receiving the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Research Fellowship in 1996. Together with Peter Weston, a lot of DNA sequence data was obtained from a comprehensive sample of the family Proteaceae. This data had wait for the advent of much more recent complex computational methods for molecular dating before it could be analysed in this manner. Frank Rutschmann was completing his PhD at the Institute for Systematic Botany, Zurich, Switzerland where Barker met him during a sabbatical visit in 2004, and enlisted his assistance in the analytical methods. Hervé Sauquet initiated a rigorous survey and re-assessment of the fossil record of the Proteaceae while based in Stockholm, Sweden, and was able to provide revised information on fossil ages required for calibrating the ‘molecular clock’. He continued his work with Weston at Sydney, before moving to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he is currently working.

    2. About Wiley-Blackwell
    Wiley-Blackwell was formed in February 2007 as a result of the merger between Blackwell Publishing Ltd. and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.’s Scientific, Technical, and Medical business. Together, the companies have created a global publishing business with deep strength in every major academic and professional field. Wiley-Blackwell publishes approximately 1,250 scholarly peer-reviewed journals and an extensive collection of books with global appeal. For more information on Wiley-Blackwell, please visit or



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