Ash Tree Future May Depend on ISU Seed Bank

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AMES, Iowa - For a number of months we've been learning more and more about the Emerald Ash Borer.  This insect is in Iowa, and boring into ash trees around the state.  It is expected this little pest will spread to most of Iowa's ash trees, which will mean the loss of many of the trees.

Tivon Feeley is in charge of forest health for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He says that an "unlikely scenario would be that all ash trees die out." Feeley added," the Emerald Ash Borer then dies out because it doesn't have anything to feed on."

In that case Iowa could re-plant ash trees. Feeley says "one of the things we've done as a state, is to take the best seed we can find from the trees that are in great shape."  He adds, "we've done it from State forests, and put them in seed banks."

Jeffrey Carstens is an ISU researcher who is in charge of the seed collections Iowa State University's Plant Introduction Farm, on the south edge of Ames. He keeps the Iowa-collected ash seeds in a large freezer. There are many other species of plant seed saved in cool and freezing storage areas.  The seeds are kept cold in order to keep any sprouting activity or other unwanted changes from happening.

Carstens said, "basically we're preserving genetic diversity for future research and use."  His staff members at the Plant Introduction Farm work to catalogue and store thousands of seed types in jars and clear pouches. Seed samples are sent around the world to be used in research.  Iowa State's seed storage is one of several located around the country.  The Ames collection is heavy on corn varieties, but also includes trees, shrubs and vegetables.  Samples include sunflower seeds, carrot seeds, even spinach seeds.

Carstens says preserving the genetic diversity of plants is important. "In the 40's and 50's we lost a lot of our elm trees to Dutch Elm disease, we basically replanted with a lot of green ash," said Carstens. He is hoping the lesson is learned if we do replant ash, to also incorporate other varieties .  The goal would be to prevent a large loss of one type of tree.


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