Naples seed bank shows need to save plants to combat coastal erosion, sea level rise

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Jessica DeYoung walked off a sugar sand trail at the Naples Botanical Garden, stooped down to the scrubby underbrush and took apart the seed pod of a yellow hatpin, a tiny flowering plant.

She plans to add her bounty to a growing seed bank that's being used to fight sea level rise and climate change. 

"We figured out there are over 30 species that are not in any backup collection globally, and from that standpoint there are 70 species that are in three or less," said DeYoung, conservation horticulture manager at the garden. "We consider those at-risk if anything were to happen to this natural environment. So we do the groundwork to see what we need to be targeting." 

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Jessica DeYoung, conservation horticulture manager at Naples Botanical Garden harvests seedlings from a yellow hat pin on the grounds of the gardens on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The seedlings are being harvested so they can be placed in a seed bank at the gardens. The seed bank was created to save plants from coastal erosion,  sea level rise and climate change. DeYoung is a Florida Gulf Coast University graduate/

DeYoung and the Naples Botanical Garden are working with Florida Gulf Coast University to store a growing collection of seeds, which includes many samples from Florida, islands in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world.  

A 2018 FGCU grad, DeYoung, 25, is working to save and grow seeds that are being used to restore habitats and that will be used to ward off the impacts of sea level rise and coastal erosion.

Plants are an important part of keeping coastal areas intact, and they help reduce storm impacts by absorbing some of the impact from waves and storm surge.

Worldwide, there are nearly 400,000 plant species, and most of those have not been catalogued for storage — meaning those plants and trees could be lost in the near future. 

"Collections are currently are exceptionally rushed at this time because we don't know when the plant is no longer going to be there," DeYoung said. "It could be (lost) at any moment." 

Chad Washburn, vice president of conservation at Naples Botanical Garden, said the seed bank has grown tremendously in the past four years. 

"When we started this seed bank we saw this opportunity to analyze this area and to see what was in seed conservation collections around the globe and what wasn't," Washburn said. "And we really saw that there were almost 70 species just in this 9-acre of scrub habitat that are absent or under-represented in seed banks around the entire globe." 

Harvested seeds from a wild flower. The seeds will be placed in a seed bank at the Naples Botanical Garden.  The seed bank was created to save plants from coastal erosion,  sea level rise and climate change.

This part of the Naples Botanical Garden campus consists of coastal uplands, an increasingly rare ecosystem that's typically lost to development. 

Developers build on high, dry ground, and many people like to live near the coast. 

Living near the coast comes with costs and risks, though, as major hurricanes sometimes rip through the state. 

"By having a seed bank, it adds an extra layer of insurance," Washburn said. "Having the seeds in a seed bank, those can be readily available for restoration purposes if we have a storm and a beach dune is wiped out. We have seeds ready to restore that." 

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Hundreds of thousands of seeds are stored at FGCU's Kapnick Center in Naples, which is on the Naples Botanical Garden campus.

"Really, this represents Noah's Ark for our region," Washburn said. "This is really the place where those seeds are stored for the long term."

The seeds could be used for anything from a coastal restoration project to providing a more heat-resistant specimen that can be used further to the north as the climate continues to warm. 

Sea oats that do well in South Florida today may do well in North Florida or the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina in the future, the thinking goes. 

Seeds from the Caribbean could be used to restore an island heavily impacted by a major hurricane. Seeds from South Florida are already being used in coastal erosion restoration projects. 

Those plants are vital to a healthy ecology, DeYoung said. Replanting lost trees on those islands could also help fend off future storms. 

"The ecosystem is really defined by the plants that are in it," DeYoung said. "That's the first basis of life you need in order to have the insects, birds and animals. The solution here is to make sure we have the right plants in the right place." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.