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Northeast Ohio seed bank wants to make an investment in Ohio's forested future

Kimberly Lessman, who manages the Holden Forests and Gardens seed bank, collects spicebush seeds on the arboretum's grounds on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Kimberly Lessman, who manages the Holden Forests and Gardens seed bank, collects spicebush seeds on the arboretum's grounds on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

Northeast Ohio’s Holden Forests and Gardens is the proud owner of a new bank, but this bank doesn’t want your money. Holden’s bank deals in seeds for trees, shrubs, and other native plants. The goal is to send those seeds right back out into nature to help reforest the lower Great Lakes region.

David Burke, the vice president of science and conservation at Holden Forests and Gardens, said reforestation is an important tool in the fight against climate change.

“One of the primary solutions for climate change mitigation is forest restoration or changes in management of forests so that the forests can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere,” he said.

Unlike some other seed banks that store seeds for posterity, this one hopes to have a quick turnaround, processing and sending seeds back out as soon as possible. According to Burke, one of the biggest challenges reforestation plans face is a lack of seeds.

David Burke, vice president of science and conservation at Holden Forests and Gardens, stands for a photo in a greenhouse.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
David Burke is the vice president of science and conservation at Holden Forests and Gardens.

“One of the things people don’t recognize I think right now is that though we want to plant a lot of trees, there’s a bottleneck within this process,” he said. “We may want to plant a trillion trees, but we don’t have a trillion seedlings or seeds in which
to do that.”

In fact, according to the Nature Conservancy, there are some 148 million acres of land in the United States that could be reforested, but America’s tree nurseries only produce enough seedlings to plant an estimated 2.5 million acres of forest land each year.

“The seed bank is an effort to sort of overcome that bottleneck and actually provide material to the community that people need for reforestation purposes,” Burke said.

Holden’s seed bank is actually an old shipping container nestled between a couple greenhouses, located behind Holden’s Ellen Corning Long and T. Dixon Long Center for Plant & Environmental Science.

It was donated by a Hawaiian global reforestation startup called Terraformation, which first gave it a fresh coat of white paint outside and a seed lab makeover inside. Its operations are being funded in part by a $335,000 earmark from the U.S. Forest Service that was part of a federal spending bill passed in December 2022.

The seed bank, which was installed earlier this year, is now officially up and running, which means that Kimberly Lessman, the seed bank's new manager, has a busy fall season ahead of her collecting and processing seeds.

As a matter of fact, she’s already started. Silver trays inside the seed bank are covered in ash seed, collected from the grounds of the Holden Arboretum. There’s also a sink and various tools of the trade like scales, scalpels, tweezers, strainers, drying racks and refrigerators for storing processed seeds.

While many of the seeds that are collected will be sent back out for reforestation, some will stay at Holden for research purposes.

The seed bank has the capacity to store 10 million seeds, so the job is too big for Lessman alone.

“One thing that we are going to do is look to our volunteers here at Holden and then elsewhere with our project partners, that is definitely the best way that we will collect a large amount of seed,” Lessman said.

So what kind of seeds are they looking for?

According to Katie Stuble, chair of the research department at Holden, “all of them.”

“All of the native species so that our forests can be super biodiverse, so that they can be super flexible to sort of flex with the next threat,” Stuble said. “That could be warmer temperatures, that might be a new disease that’s on the horizon, that could be drought, that could be really extreme flood conditions, who knows who’s going to be a winner in those conditions, and so we need everybody at the table so that the winner’s there too.”

Ohio’s forests are already under constant threat, in part from land conversion, like those ever-expanding suburbs, and partly from pests and diseases like the Emerald Ash Borer and Beech Leaf Disease. But Stuble says Ohio is an ideal location for what
she hopes will become a seed lab hub for the entire region.

“We have lots of areas that could be reforested, and we have lots of young forests that could be properly managed, and both of those things are going to help us combat climate change,” she said.

Holden already manages 3,000 acres of land, most of which is forest, but that’s a drop in the bucket considering the vast majority of Ohio’s land is privately owned. Holden is working on establishing private and public partnerships all around the lower Great Lakes, partnerships that they hope will help mitigate the effects of climate change globally and in our backyard.

Ida Lieszkovszky is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She covers an array of topics, including politics, education, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter @Ida_in_Cle.