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Back from the Brink: The Bermuda Bean

You might not think of Bermuda as a hotspot for wild beans, but the Atlantic archipelago 1,200km southeast of the United States is home to at least one very interesting specimen.

The endemic Bermuda bean is believed to have evolved in isolation for thousands of years. It developed special characteristics, including a vigorous rooting system, which scientists speculate could be the plant’s evolutionary response to strong winds. This means it could be useful for crop breeders developing bean varieties for areas affected by storms and hurricanes.

But the bean was on the verge of extinction in the wild. In 2014, it appeared on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, with just 29 mature plants left in its natural habitat. The expansion of the construction, tourism, and leisure industries, together with the spread of invasive plants, threatened that habitat.

But a rescue effort was already underway. A small number of Bermuda bean seeds had been conserved at the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the UK. In 2012, MSB sent 15 seeds to bean experts at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) near Cali, in southwestern Colombia. These were planted at the center’s headquarters, and at a field station it manages near the city of Popayan, an area with good conditions for growing beans. These plants produced around 6,000 seeds, 100 of which were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in October 2017. The remainder were conserved at the CIAT genebank – the largest collection of beans in the world – and a consignment of seeds were returned to MSB.

While the natural habitat of the Bermuda bean may still face serious challenges, the seeds of this fascinating plant are safe.

 

 

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Originally published in the Crop Trust Magazine.
Photos: Neil Palmer/CIAT

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