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ROSEMARY FITZGERALD spots the first one within 10 feet of where she's parked her car: a bright red berry in a prickly, gray-green bush. This is a good omen. Amateur botanists in the area had warned she might not find any berries at all.
FitzGerald-layered in fleece, cotton and wool to keep out the December chill-snakes her hand through the spiny stems to pluck it. When she pinches the berry in her fingers, out pops the treasure she seeks-three moist seeds.
A rare-plant specialist, FitzGerald is one in a small army of plant enthusiasts, mostly volunteers, who for the last three years have been crawling under brush, rappelling down cliffs and wading through streams in an effort to collect the seeds of every seed-bearing plant in the United Kingdom. She is in the front line of an [pound]80 million ($120 million) project-called the Millennium Seed Bank-to preserve genetic materials by freezing seeds, which can be germinated years later if the wild plants vanish.
Her search has brought her to the New Forest in Hampshire, England, a swath of nature preserve near the southern coast. Its name is deceptive. The New Forest has served as deer-hunting ground for the Crown since William the Conqueror laid claim to it in 1079. Much of it is occupied not by trees but by spongy pastures where ponies graze amid fields of lumpy brown heather.
The seeds she is looking for belong to a plant called butcher's broom. They are among the last seeds of about 1,400 British plant species to be collected in the first phase of the project, which is now virtually completed. A second phase, which has already started, involves similar collecting from dry lands worldwide. The goal is to gather seeds from 10 percent of the Earth's flora by 2010, 25 percent by 2025.
Plants in Britain and around the world are in trouble, threatened by everything from encroaching human populations to pollution. Scientists predict that 25 percent of the Earth's plant species may not exist …