Seeds Of Life

Sandra Hughes is a CBS News correspondent based in Los Angeles.
It was a rainy day when we drove up the almost hidden driveway to the Berry Botanical Garden in suburban Portland, Oregon. Cameraman Max Stacey and I had missed the tiny sign and we were just going by addresses when we found it! But what a delightful find. Six acres of gardens and a beautiful old white house just up from the river road. But the real hidden gem was the project directors Ed Guerrant and Andrea Raven are working on inside; seed banking.

It's not a new idea but saving the world's seeds has taken on a measure of urgency and Ed told me why, because he says "not since the age of dinosaurs have things been going extinct at the rate they are now."

Right now up to one-fifth of the earth's plants are in trouble--fluctuating temperatures from global warming mean some plants that need cold conditions are too warm, those that need rain, aren't getting it.

If you wonder why it's so important to save plants it's because plants are not only a source of food but are also a source of medicine. One in six of all wild plants are used for medicine, one in ten for food. Who knows what disease might yet be cured by some wild plant that is near extinction? And what about the delicate balance of the eco-system? Ed and Andrea explained to me that losing just one plant could throw things off. What bird or bug might eat that plant? Without that plant, the bird or bug dies. That, in turn, can affect many other animals.

So, the job of saving endangered plant species in the Northwest U.S. is the job of Ed and Andrea. They go out into the field and delicately (so they don't damage the plant) take seeds from endangered plants in the northwest. Like the pale larkspur, western lily and nelsons checker mallow. It's an insurance policy against extinction. They take the seeds back for drying and ultimately freezing inside their seed bank.

The Berry Botanical Garden takes its seed banking seriously. The seed bank is a freezer that is kept in a fire-proof room behind a bank vault door. They are working on making the room completely earthquake safe, as well.

And if you think they're seed serious in Oregon you should see the seed bank just outside London! It's called the Millennium Seed Project. A towering fortress of modern steel built to house all the world's seeds. It's huge and quite modern looking and the idea is to hold the key to the entire world's plant life right there. They are well on their way. Officials at the Millennium Seed Project predict by 2010 they should have about ten percent of the world's seeds!