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One Picture

Photo Essay
Blowing in the Wind
Armed with a powerful electron microscope, an artist reveals the exquisite beauty of seeds and their dispersal.

“If there is any living thing which might explain to us the mystery beyond this life, it should be seeds,” wrote the great naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, in his 1939 book Flowering Earth. Worlds of their own, full of import, seeds are, in these images by Rob Kesseler, not unlike some new planet glimpsed through the bridge windows in a sci-fi flick. What appears at first sere and unknown, a cipher, unfolds upon exploration into plot, character, action: life, in other words.

If the long development of flowering plants can be understood as a tale of how blossoms have seduced bees and hummingbirds into spreading their pollen around, the even longer saga of seeds is an epic of motion, too: How can rooted plants ensure that their offspring disperse and find fertile ground? In Kesseler’s stunning photographs, taken at high magnification with a scanning electron microscope, the ingenious mechanisms of dispersal stand exposed as evolutionary wizardry, and as reminders that plants have a far longer track record than we as colonizers of new lands. Left behind as the delicate outer and inner cell walls dissolve, the honeycomb latticework of the Lamourouxia viscosa (in the parasitic broomrape family) is a perfect adaptation for catching puffs of wind. So are the hairs of Epilobium angustifolium, the showy-flowered fireweed that is a common settler of freshly burned areas in western forests.

But wind is a comparatively easy way to go. The featherlike scales of a cornflower seed employ pure doggedness, extending and retracting with changes of humidity to push the entire seed along. If that doesn’t work, the petite elaiosome at its base (brown in the image) functions as tasty bait for ants, which carry the seed off, eat the morsel, and leave the embryo to sprout. Forget anything you may have thought about seeds as inanimate: These structures are thoroughly alive, and possessed of what one is tempted to call determination.

Forget, too, anything you may have thought about the carefully segregated protocols of science and art. As Kesseler, a visual artist, and Wolfgang Stuppy, a seed morphologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, sat side by side at the microscope and explored the complex topography of their subjects (featured in their book Seeds: Time Capsules of Life), there were “great whoops of excitement or laughter,” Kesseler says, “not the sort of things you normally hear in quiet laboratories.”

Kesseler colored the images on a computer but likens the process to the meticulous hand-coloring earlier botanical artists practiced as collections like Kew’s were established in the 18th and 19th centuries. Stuppy and other modern-day collectors are creating a Millennium Seed Bank that will preserve the germplasm of 24,000 species in cold storage—not as an imperial trophy but as an insurance policy against catastrophe in the wild. The bounds of the earth may have been diminished by the success of human dispersal. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to discover, even on only this world.

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