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  • Jennifer Jewell


Clare Foster and Sabina Rüber. Photo ©Eva Nemeth, all rights reserved.


Close up imaging of seeds in the CalBG collection, courtesy of Cal BG and Research Associate, John Macdonald, who has been working to photograph seeds from every taxon stored in the seed bank.

Last week we made our first visit to California Botanic Garden to learn about their extensive Conservation Programs on behalf of the native flora of California. We spoke with Dr. Naomi Fraga, director of those programs.

This week, we dig down a little more deeply with Cheryl Birker who is the Seed Conservation Program Manager for this largest seed bank of California Flora.

Cheryl has a degree in Biology with a concentration in Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation Biology from California State University Fullerton. She started in May of 2014 as a seed collector for the BLM Seeds of Success Program, then worked in the Cal BG Restoration Nursery growing native plants for restoration and mitigation projects. Cheryl has been managing the Seed Conservation Program since August 2016. , formerly known as Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which since 1927 has been dedicated to education about and conservation of the plants of the California Floristic Province. Their conservation programs include field studies, laboratory studies, a restoration nursery, and seed banking and conservation.

Founded in 1927 in Orange County along the banks of the Santa Ana River, for most of its history the Garden was known as the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. The facilities moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and in March of 2020 was renamed California Botanic Garden to more clearly align with its mission.

"This is such important work. As humanity progresses, it becomes more and more important that we find these seeds and we share them and store them away so that we can conserve them."

Cheryl Birker, California Botanic Garden

Currently, the seed bank at CalBG comprises over 5,000 accessions representing more than 2,000 California native plant species and cultivars. The geographic scope of the collection encompasses the entire state of California as well as the Mexican portion of the California Floristic Province.

In our conversation, Cheryl shares more about how the conservation seed collections really ramped up in the 1980s as the need for them became ever more urgent. Finally she walks us through a day in the field with a conservation seed collector and her own love of the incredibly beauty, ingenuity, and diversity in the structures of individual seeds.

You can follow along with Cheryl's work on line at California Botanic Garden and on Instagram, @californiabotanicgarden/

Join us again next week when we finish our Seed Change series in conversation with Vivien Sansour, heart and head behind The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library aiming to bring Palestinian seed heritage back to the dinner table. Vivien was born in Palestine and grew up in Bethlehem. She writes: “The seed, the seed, the seed….for what is it but a continuation of ourselves? Aren’t we all seeds?" – Vivien Sansour





I love how both Cheryl, and Naomi (last week) were called as young college students to the passionate work they now do in our world.

I love how they were guided and mentored on their paths by both humans and the plants and seeds themselves.

When you are out in the field, people often refer to the idea of “getting your eyes on” whether it’s that moment in time when a person goes from seeing all plants as simply a green mass, to actually seeing the individual lives, attributes and beauties of these others who make our lives possible, or it’s when you’re looking for birds, for butterflies, for mushrooms and once you see one on the trail you then know how to see them – and then you can see they are often everywhere – in numbers that were invisible to your eyes before you really SAW that first one.

Have you had an experience like that? If you have, you know just what I mean. And it’s kind of magical – you go from not seeing to seeing very differently.

The same is true for seed – once you see one plant’s seed you begin to see seed everywhere. And once you learn to identify a plant’s seed form, you begin to know that plant more fully. It is a greater layer of not just seeing, but knowing another, and in more fully knowing this other, you also have greater understanding and real relationship with that other.

And there’s something about that philosophically that moves me – to see and recognize someone in their smallest and most essential form is beautiful and hopeful somehow. I see it as involving a profound faith beyond words that there is something tiny in each of us that with light, air, water, and sunshine can grow into something bright, mighty and bold – and it (we?) can do this over and over again. When we see this in each other - we really see the world differently.

One of my big take aways from my conversations with Naomi and Cheryl – way beyond the needs or seeds of just the California Floristic Province, is in the fruitfulness of collaboration – plants model this in just about everything they do – from roots, to shoots, to flower, to seed.

In a time of great division, the work of the CalBG and all their associated work is built on collaboration – with the plants, with one another, between regional agencies and indeed across the globe in efforts to identify and conserve some of our most valuable allies – plants – through their seeds.

I would like to think that this is one of the great lessons our gardens give to us as gardeners – that we are as well better collaborators, better seers as it were of larger needs, concerns, pathways forward.

But I know too this is my hope rather than the reality and many gardeners – perhaps myself included – have even greater collaborative skills to learn, practice, master. I will think on this and I hope you will join me in this – if there were 1 or 2 changes we could make in our own gardens or with our gardens to be better collaborators in this world – what would they be?

And have you by chance noticed that conversation and conservation are anagrams of one another?

There’s an unexpected and poetic gift in that my friends.


Close up imaging of seeds in the CalBG collection, courtesy of Cal BG and Research Associate, John Macdonald, who has been working to photograph seeds from every taxon stored in the seed bank.




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