Banking on Nevada's native seeds

An effort to supply Nevada plant seeds at the local, state and federal levels receives federal funding

A person's hands reach into a fridge and hold up a brown labeled tag on a white bag.

The seeds collected by botanists are stored in fridges at the University's Native Seed Bank.

Banking on Nevada's native seeds

An effort to supply Nevada plant seeds at the local, state and federal levels receives federal funding

The seeds collected by botanists are stored in fridges at the University's Native Seed Bank.

A person's hands reach into a fridge and hold up a brown labeled tag on a white bag.

The seeds collected by botanists are stored in fridges at the University's Native Seed Bank.

The Nevada Native Seed Partnership (NNSP) was part of recent announcements of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Burned Area Rehabilitation funding awards. The NNSP will receive $3.74 million to increase native seed collection, production and use in restoration across the Great Basin.

“The Great Basin is the site of the largest ongoing seeding project in the world,” Beth Leger, a botanist and foundation professor of biology at the University, said.

But most of the native seeds planted in Nevada aren’t from or grown in Nevada, and the climate in which seeds evolved makes a difference when the seeds are planted.

Shannon Swim sits at a computer in a small room with a petri dish full of seeds next to her and a photo of small seeds on the computer screen in black and white.
University research scientist, Shannon Swim, checks seed viability using an x-ray machine.

“And as the climate changes, our seeds are the hot-, dry-tolerant plants that other regions are going to need,” Leger added.

The partnership, which includes Leger’s research group, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Nature Conservancy, the Nevada Department of Agriculture, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and many other organizations and agencies, will be able to expand its capacity for collecting and processing native Nevada seeds with the recent funding.

“We're all part of this cohesive effort to get everything that Nevada needs to collect and store and grow our own seeds, which again has been happening in other states for, sometimes, over 50 years,” Leger said. “We are finally getting the infrastructure to do it.”

Another major NNSP goal is to develop a full-time position for a tribal liaison. The liaison would foster connections with local tribal communities and listen to what the tribes might want from the NNSP.

Starting a seed bank

The NNSP includes a seed bank Leger started with breadcrumbs from previous funding.

Sagebrush seeds rest in the palm of someone who is pointing with their other hand at the small black dots, which are the actual seeds.
The small black dots on Swim's hand are sagebrush seeds.

In the 2000s, late Nevada Senator Harry Reid earmarked funds for water conservation in Walker Lake, which would inevitably dry up unless inflow to the lake was restored. The funds bought up water rights from willing sellers with the goal of moving the water back into the lake. Today, that effort has grown into the Walker Basin Conservancy. The University received some of that funding to assist in restoration and conservation efforts. Restoration of the former agricultural lands in the area was a critical part of Reid’s goal for the basin.

“That’s where I came in,” Leger said. “I was trying to help figure out how to take a former desert that’s been irrigated for 50 years and turn it back into shrubs.”

Many other projects were aiding the overall lake restoration efforts, but Leger’s project outlasted them all, “because shrubs just take forever,” she joked.

Mridul Gautam, vice president for research and innovation at the University, took charge of the Walker Basin project in 2017. Gautam met with Leger to discuss progress and asked her about what she would do with the small, leftover funds that remained from the conservation project. Leger scrambled to think of a valuable use of the funds.

“What about a seed bank?” Leger said.

Seed banks collect and maintain plant seeds, which was an important part of restoring the former agricultural land in the Walker Basin. Gautam liked the idea and asked Leger to put together a plan.

“It does fulfill the goal of the Walker Basin program and expand on it,” Leger said. “We also helped the Walker Basin Conservancy set up their native seed collection program, which is ongoing and very successful!”

Leger and her colleague Shannon Swim drafted a plan, which was approved by Gautam. Leger tasked Swim, now a research scientist in the Department of Biology, with starting the seed bank. This was no small undertaking. Swim contacted seed banks across the United States to ask for advice and recommendations.

To start a seed bank, you need several things: equipment to clean the seeds, ways of testing the seed, places to store the cleaned seeds with the proper conditions and places to grow some of the seeds.

A wooden pergola with a scientific poster stapled on the outside resides next to a larger concrete building.
The seed-cleaning equipment resides in a pergola outside the University's Experiment Station.

The seed bank, which is also known as the University of Nevada, Reno Native Seed Processing and Storage Center, was established in 2017. The reality of the seed bank is in stark contrast to the imagery the mind might conjure of a seed bank, with floor-to-ceiling marble and a huge vault door which opens to a cavern full of massive jars of seeds, meticulously labeled. The seed bank’s seed-cleaning equipment currently resides entirely inside a premade pergola purchased from a home improvement store. Swim playfully notes that while the center might not fit the majestic imagery of a seed bank, all of the equipment is state of the art, the seed is meticulously labeled, the pergola is impeccably clean to prevent contamination and 24-hour temperature monitoring ensures that the seeds are well cared-for.

Managing the University’s Native Seed Processing and Storage Center is now Swim’s job.

Shannon Swim leans over, holding her hand beneath the spout of a machine while rotating a knob on top of the machine.
Swim's favorite machine for cleaning seeds uses brushes against a mesh drum to extract the seed.

“Seed cleaning is really the forgotten step in restoration,” Swim said. “This is not surprising as it really is not glamorous work, but it is important work and it keeps you on your toes as each seed lot is unique and requires individual assessment on the best way to clean it while maintaining diversity.”

Seed cleaning has been happening on campus for eight years now, though at a limited capacity, which is changing because of the recent award through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Department of the Interior is investing $1.5 billion over five years to better support its wildland firefighting workforce and increase the resilience of communities and lands facing the threat of wildfires. With this investment in Nevada’s infrastructure, native seeds will soon be ready to deploy in post-fire restoration across the state.

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