Through the years, those who care for the earth have recognized the importance of saving seeds for the future.
There have been instances of heroic efforts, such as those of the scientists who starved to death in Leningrad among stores of seed corn, wheat, rice, beans and potatoes in the terrible winter of 1941. Nine botanists died in the midst of plenty to ensure the preservation of seed material for future generations.
In 1851, Henry Ward Beecher wrote an essay that explained the art of seed saving, and summarized the technique as ripen them well, dry them thoroughly and keep them aired and cool.
And this is precisely what they do at the Millenium Seed Partnership operated by Kew Gardens at Wakehurst in Sussex, England.
This worldwide collaboration aims to safeguard more than 24,000 plant species from around the world from extinction. It already has successfully assured the future of 1,400 native species found in the British Isles, and continues to explore and collect seeds around the world.
I visited the specially designed building at Wakehurst place a few weeks ago, where the seeds are banked, and an exhibition has been developed to showcase the continuing effort to preserve seed viability in this way. The seeds are stored in vaults below ground and are not on view to the public.
Experts predict, by the end of this century, 50 percent of the world's plants will be condemned to extinction. Should this happen, many thousands of animals will disappear as their native habitats vanish.
Around 30,000 species of plants are used for food by people around the world - with wheat, maize (corn) and rice providing 50 percent of all plant-derived food energy. A quarter of the medicines used in the Western world are derived from plants, and shelter and fuel come from the same sources.
Ideally, plants should be preserved in the wild - in their own natural habitats - but pressures on the environment make this impossible in many cases, and so banking seeds becomes necessary.
Seeds occupy small space and require relatively little attention. Many thousands of seeds can be stored for a species, each one representing a potential new plant.
Under the cold, dry conditions that are maintained at Wakehurst, seeds potentially can survive for hundreds of years. Each batch that arrives at the facility is dried and cleaned before going into storage that is maintained at -20 Celsius. (I hope the U.S. does not adopt Celsius scale in my lifetime. It took every iota of my admittedly minimal mathematical skills to translate this temperature to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.)
After banking, the viability of the seeds is periodically monitored by germination tests. An acceptable result will find a germination rate of 75 percent, or a new collection will need to be made from the wild.
When needed, plants that have germinated can be reintroduced to the appropriate location or used for habitat restoration. They also may be used in scientific research to find new and sustainable ways in which plants can benefit society.
My own efforts in seed saving are minimal.
I love Wisley Magic scarlet runner beans, and have not found a source in this country, so I do save the seeds from each year's crop. Now that I have a better understanding of proper storage conditions, I will be sure to keep my seeds dry, aired and cool.