The Seeds of Success (SOS) team at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden has been responsible for greatly expanding international seed bank holdings from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

A recent expedition to a collection site on the Pacific Crest Trail is rewarded with a copious yield of the shrub saltbrush (Atriplex canescens). The four-wing saltbrush codominates desert plant communities in Southern California and is a food source for the desert tortoise. The saltbrush seed collection will ultimately help build an ample national and international seed bank to maintain and restore resilient native plant communities after environmental damage such as fire or urban development.

The successful Seeds of Success program, a multi-million dollar partnership of federal and non-governmental organizations, is a wild land seed collection and preservation network. The program is led and funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is part of the Congressionally-mandated Native Plant Materials Development Program and is a partner of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Millennium Seed Bank.

Tommy Stoughton, the crew leader, begins the road trip with an odometer reading and music selection. The team settles on a classic rock station and as they travel east on the I-10 past a parade of billboards and outlet malls, they talk shop and discuss upcoming holiday parties.

For Jackie McConnaughy (Darien, Conn.), and Drew Monks (Grand Rapids, Mich.), the SOS internship based at RSABG is their first experience in the California desert. The two interns, recent graduates of Colorado College and the University of Michigan respectively, joined hundreds of SOS collectors across the country.

They exit the freeway as the first towering wind turbines of the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm come into view.

“This project is all about timing,” says Stoughton as he navigates up the dirt road to the trailhead in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

It often takes more than one trip to complete a collection. The first trip assesses the readiness of the population for seed collection, the second to collect the seed. This trip is the latter.

As the Garden’s SOS Coordinator Tommy Stoughton is responsible for finding and assessing the collection sites and then mapping the logistics for the team. With 34 species and 76 sites, it has been a challenge.

Each site must include at least 50 individuals of a common or widespread species—plants that do well in disturbance—to be considered. This means any plant species listed as threatened or endangered is excluded from the SOS project. The team often focuses on swaths of BLM land slated for future wind or solar power projects.

Monks says he considers it a seed rescue mission of sorts, since it may be the last time a collection is made before some of the areas are developed.

According to Stoughton, 10 collections of Californian Mojave desert native plants had been made prior to the RSABG SOS project. And as the only team dedicated to the area, the saltbrush and other collections are critical to provide the native plant materials needed for restoration projects.

Once a site has been selected, Stoughton tracks seasonal and weather conditions and the distinct timing of each taxa. The crew has to be aware of heat conditions (heat helps the seed dispersal process but too much of a good thing can reduce viability), rain (which will delay dispersal by a couple days) and wind (which reduces team productivity due to dispersal of the seeds from the plant).

On the trail, eerie howls of the wind turbines, power lines and occasional hikers are the only reminders of urban life as the crew keep a brisk pace collecting seeds from about 200 plants.

Stoughton and the interns use thick utility gloves to grasp the inflorescence and gently shake the seeds into a paper bag. Mandated by SOS protocol, the group can take no more than 20 percent of the seeds of a site for the collection. But McConnaughy says they usually error on the side of caution and take around 10 percent.

Back at the Garden they set the seeds, taped tightly inside the paper bags, to dry in the herbarium or nursery’s growth chambers. Each collection contains over 10,000 seeds, enough for germination testing every 10 years for over 200 years. With each collection, data is gathered about the plant population and location and submitted into the SOS database.

As of January, the team has sent about 145 collections to the U.S. Forest Service Seed Extractory in Bend, Oregon. Prior to sending, the seeds are taxonomically verified at RSABG and a voucher specimen from each collection is lodged the RSABG Seed Conservation Program and sent to the Smithsonian.

At the Bend facility, the seeds are cleaned and have viability tested. Afterward, they are distributed into working research collections and or placed into long-term storage—seed banking. Seed banking, conserving and storing species away from their original habitats, enables plants to escape threats imposed by destructive habitat changes.

The Garden has been participating in the program since 2010 and is one of 39 partners in the U.S. to host a seed collection team. Established in 2001, the SOS program is part of an international seed conservation initiative collectively known as the Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP), originally developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom. The global program is the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world and aims to bank 25 percent of the world’s flora by 2020 for long-term storage and conservation.

For Stoughton, McConnaughy and Monks, the experience is providing vital hands on field experience and moves them closer toward career goals to contribute to a lasting legacy of ecological preservation.