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Display of nine close-ups of seeds. Click image for more information about the seeds.
Click the image for more information about the seeds.

Amy Rossman, Joe Kirkbride and Bob Gibbons identify a seed sample. Link to photo information
ARS mycologist Amy Rossman (left) and botanist Joe Kirkbride (middle) identify a seed sample with APHIS technician Bob Gibbons by comparing it with specimens in the U.S. National Seed Herbarium and by using the online database “Family Guide for Fruits and Seeds.” Click the image for more information about it.

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New Online Guide for Identifying the World's Seeds and Fruits

By Erin Peabody
March 8, 2007

Trying to identify the exotic Laelia orchid is one thing. Recognizing this rainforest resident based on its microscopic, dust-like seeds—among the tiniest in the plant kingdom—is quite another.

That's why scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Md., have created a special online database, called the "Family Guide for Fruits and Seeds", for identifying the world's myriad seeds and fruits.

Seeds are what enable plants—even those rooted well in one spot—to disseminate their reproductive material over hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. That's impressive when considering the wide variety of plants we value and cherish, including agricultural crops that help feed and clothe us and the ornamental species that make our gardens dazzle.

But invasive plants—those ecologically destructive species that are spreading at an alarming rate in the United States and elsewhere—also derive a big boost from scattering seeds. Small and lightweight, seeds from invasive plants make the perfect stowaways, hitching rides in cargo and plant material traversing the globe.

It falls to regulatory agencies, like USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, to try to stop the entry and spread of noxious weeds into the country. The new seed database created by ARS will be a critical tool to aid their efforts, helping inspectors make tough and tricky seed identifications.

The guide was developed by Joseph Kirkbride, an ARS botanist who works at the Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory (SBML) in Beltsville.

Kirkbride, who manages the U.S. National Seed Herbarium housed within SBML, relied heavily on this collection and its more than 120,000 dried specimens when developing the interactive database.

According to Kirkbride, stopping seeds at their point of entry is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways of keeping non-native plants in check.

For more on how ARS is helping nab troublesome weeds, see the latest issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.