Chilling news … for seeds in the Southwest

By Maria Mullins

January 2021

Native seeds collected through the Southwest Seed Partnership (SWSP) are finally moving into their very own seed cooler.  The IAE  Southwest Office purchased and installed a 10 x 10’ walk-in cooler to safely store native seed collected and field-produced from across the Southwest. We are grateful to the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for generously funding this capacity-building project.  The project was ‘frozen’ for many months while trying to identify an ideal long term location for the cooler, but thanks to a new partnership with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, we are ringing in the new year with a shiny new home for our Southwest Seed Partnership seeds at their warehouse facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Taylor Cain and author Maria Mullins of IAE Southwest Office present the new seed cooler
Why go to all this work to install a big box? Cleaning, testing, and properly storing native seeds are critical steps for maintaining seed quality during the native plant materials development process. Often there is a lag time after seeds are collected but before they are needed in a production field, research, or restoration project, and appropriate processing and storage maintains seed viability and increases longevity. Not only do native seeds need to stay consistently cold after collection (~40°F), but they also need to stay dry (~30% RH). High humidity is detrimental to seed viability. Seed longevity depends on the plant, but for many species these conditions will lower the seeds metabolism without causing damage, and allow seeds to stay viable for decades! Another type of seed storage, cryogenic storage (as low as -300° F), can preserve seeds for hundreds of years in the event of global catastrophes but requires special facilities such as the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

For the past four years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service Los Lunas Plant Materials Center has been storing our seeds in their modern cooler to protect them until we had a cooler of our own. Thank you NRCS! Our new cooler located is only a few miles from our Santa Fe office. Having local access to our seed collections will make it much easier to coordinate seed sampling, weighing, testing and delivering to our partners and growers.

Harvested seeds from Southwest Seed Partnership production fields
Wild collected Southwest Seed Partnership seed ready for its new home
The cooler is specifically designed to store seeds, so it is outfitted with a condenser, dehumidifier and thermostat that regulate temperature and humidity. It is also equipped with a remote monitoring station that connects to the cloud and allows us to monitor the temperature and relative humidity from afar. Alerts are set so we are notified when conditions are out of range and need attention. It is highly reflective and could eventually be powered by solar, particularly given the frequency of sunny days in New Mexico.

IAE and the Southwest Seed Partnership strive to set high standards for native seed quality, and investing in this well-equipped cooler is an example of this commitment. Many times restoration projects fail due to loss of seed viability. Project managers may blame native species or seed vendors for these failures without realizing that their own handling of the seed resulted in low establishment. We hope to demonstrate that proper caring for seeds can increase their commercial value and success in restoration projects. This small step for seed is expected to be a big step for restoration in the Southwest.