The National Tree Seed Center in Fredericton is like a seed ark.
And he hopes to send some of those seeds around the world to help repopulate vulnerable species dear to First Nations communities across the country.
Since the 1960s, the seed center has collected and cataloged millions of seeds and stored them in freezers below ground level at the Hugh John Flemming Forestry Centre.
“Our historic role has been to provide seeds of Canadian tree and shrub species to anyone around the world who is interested in Canadian species for research or educational purposes,” said Donnie McPhee, center coordinator.
But its second role, which has taken shape in this century, is to act as an endangered species conservation centre, he said.
When we work with indigenous communities, no matter where you are in the country, different species are of concern to them.– Donnie McPhee, National Tree Seed Center
Seeds that arrive at the center are inspected for viability, cataloged and frozen. Most go into one of three -20°C freezers. In the case of those who cannot survive such conditions, their embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen.
Every 10 years, the center takes a sample from each collection and germinates the seeds to test their viability.
The seed center has divided Canada into “eco-districts” and tries to store 15-20 collections of each species from an eco-district where they occur naturally.
“So when you’re talking about 700 species of trees and shrubs across 1,000 eco-districts, there’s a lot of collecting that needs to be done to conserve and have those seeds available for research and conservation purposes.”
Expanded Center priorities
For about 15 years, the center worked with Indigenous communities, but McPhee described the relationship during those years as “ad hoc.” The priorities of the federal government and the seed center came first, and there was little concern for what First Nations noticed around them, he said.
But that is changing.
“One thing that we’ve really started to notice over the last few years is that when we’re working with indigenous communities, no matter where you are in the country, different species are of concern to them,” McPhee said.
“Maybe they’re not a registered endangered species, but the local community has noticed that there’s a decline in their populations for that particular species.”
Under a program just launched by Natural Resources Canada, the seed center seeks to focus on species that First Nations consider important.
Over the next few years, the seed center will train volunteers from indigenous communities to identify and collect seeds they deem important. Ultimately, whatever they collect will be a resource available in the future.
The Mi’kmaq ad Wolastoqey of New Brunswick, for example, say black ash, a wood historically used in Aboriginal art, has become rarer in modern times.
Another example is the tall white birch trees. Although stands of white birch are not uncommon, it has become difficult to find trees large enough to provide adequate bark for traditional birchbark canoes.
“Some stands of white birch are known to communities that produce better bark,” McPhee said. “These are trees within this community that we should be collecting seeds for, and that is the seed that we should be planting there.”
Cecelia Brooks, the seed keeper from her community of St. Mary’s First Nation in Fredericton, called the seed center initiative fantastic.
“It’s a long time coming, but… I really like the idea that we’re going to have Indigenous peoples across Canada who are going to be part of this process of collecting seeds, planting seeds and growing trees.
Important for food safety
The center is offering to help repopulate some of the trees and plants that have become rare in places, McPhee said.
Brooks said the need to preserve plant species is not only important for art and heritage, but also for traditional foods.
A native seed program is already developing across Canada.
“The momentum is amazing, and so the tree seeds make sense,” Brooks said. “It’s another food source for us, especially acorns, as you know. And of course there are lots of berries, butternut and other nut trees and fruit trees that we would eat. ”
McPhee said any First Nations community wanting to start preserving their species of choice, or even just offering feedback, should contact the National Tree Seed Center.