Resembling a modernist sculpture, the filaments of the dandelion seed extend above its stalk to form a lighter-than-air parachute for traveling long distances in the breeze. This feature alone makes the dandelion one of the plant kingdom’s great invaders. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)
To us, autumn is leaf-color season. But to the trees and other plants, it is a moment far more significant. It’s the finish line. They have been racing since spring to flower, reproduce, nurture and ripen the seeds of the next generation. In their seasonal decline, they hold up to the world not the reddening leaf but the seed heads, fruits and pods that will ensure their survival.
We tend to ignore seeds, or curse them, but we rarely see them. Not in the way that photographer Robert Llewellyn has by unlocking their secrets using software technology called image stacking. From many photos comes one complete image in perfect macro focus. The project, captured in the book “Seeing Seeds” (Timber Press, 2015), also involved more prosaic manipulation. “Sometimes he had to soak, dry, coax, pry, or pin plant bits to expose seeds,” wrote co-author, Teri Dunn Chace.
The images reveal the seeds of great hardwoods and cunning weeds, of fruit and nut trees, herbs, vegetables, garden flowers and more. Llewellyn, who works from his home studio in Charlottesville, examined 100 botanical subjects. This proved more than enough to reveal the extraordinary diversity in the design and packaging of these genetic treasures, whose production allows the parent plants to hibernate or die. As Chace writes: “A seed is both the beginning and the end of a plant’s life.”
The buttonball fruits of the sycamore tree consist of hundreds of clustered seeds, each of which has the potential to become a white-barked giant growing to more than 100 feet over the course of many human generations. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) The bitternut hickory is a single-seeded nut. Its outer covering, a four-winged husk, opens when the seed within the nut is ripe. Squirrels help with the dispersal. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) The butterfly vine is a rangy shrub from Mexico. Its winged seedpods resemble butterflies and are designed to be carried far from the mother bush by the wind. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) Buried in each domestic apple are seeds with trace amounts of cyanide and an unpredictable cocktail of genes. Apple seedlings are notoriously variable, and named varieties are the clones of a single seedling. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) Grown for its decorative quality by flower arrangers, the seed of the Chinese lantern is enveloped with a red-orange husk, or, more accurately, calyxes. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) The papery covering turns to a skeleton to reveal a fruit related to the tomatillo, but the Chinese lantern is not edible and is considered weedy. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) Seedpods are designed to dry and split open to discharge their cargo of seeds at the right time. The pod of the devil’s claw cleaves to create two curving horns. Another name for it is elephant tusk. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) The castor bean is the seed of an African shrub often grown as a large annual, though its seed coating is the source of the deadly toxin ricin and must be handled with care. The beans were used to make the old-fashioned laxative castor oil. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)
The ear tree is a fast growing legume from the Americas related to the mimosa and named for its curled pod, which darkens from green to black-brown as the seeds within ripen. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) Honesty, or money plant, is an old fashioned biennial valued for its seed pods, which age from green to white to silver, indicating that the visible seeds are ripe. If left unpicked, the pods turn brown and disintegrate, releasing the seed to germinate. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) The beautyberry is a common hardy garden shrub valued for its unusual and showy purple berries in the fall. Botanically, the berries are fleshy seed coverings known as drupes. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press) The mystical lotus flower begins to develop its fertilized seed even before the bloom is fully faded. The seeds have a hard outer covering that can keep the embryo within viable for centuries. (Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)
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