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Enchanting photos of seeds and fruits show why these are nature’s engineered wonders


Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

The largest seed in the world, the coco de mer, is legendary among plants. It can weigh over 50 pounds and measure up to three feet in circumference. Before it was discovered to grow on palm trees native to the Seychelles, sailors who saw one drifting in the Indian Ocean believed it to have come from mythical underwater trees. This is how it gets its name, meaning “coconut of the sea”.
Its rarity and suggestive shape have led to even more folklore. People believed he had incredible healing powers and was the result of complex mating rituals – between trees! – which only took place on stormy nights. As a result, it has become a precious commodity for royalty and the wealthy.

Today, the legends are long gone, but the coconut the sea – also known as the double coconut or Lodoicea maldivica – is still in great demand and sells for high prices in antique shops. However, overexploitation and poaching have put the species at risk, with only 8,000 mature palms left in the wild on just two islands.

“It has been marketed for centuries, but the trade is now prohibited,” says Martin Gardner, botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. “It’s on a special list with elephant tusks, rhino horns, (and) pangolins – along with many other plants.”

A macro photograph of the Coco de Mer (Lodoicea maldivica) housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Credit: The Hidden Beauty of Seeds and Fruits, Copyright Levon Biss 2021

Today, a new facet of coco de mer is exhibited, among the 100 seeds and fruits specially selected in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden by the photographer Levon Biss, in collaboration with the botanists of the institution. Biss then photographed them for an exhibition and a book, using a special technique that almost made them look like works of art.

By showing off details that are normally hidden from the naked eye, Biss hopes to draw attention to the beauty of these natural wonders.

A laborious process

To achieve the look, Biss used a process called photo stacking. Normally, he says, “when you work at a higher magnification, the image is less sharp. You can get that kind of feeling if you close one eye and look at a subject in the foreground: everything else in the background will be completely out of focus. “

Enchanting photos of seeds and fruits show why these are nature’s engineered wonders

Photographer Levon Biss specializes in macro images of insects and botanical subjects, including his new display of seeds and fruits. Credit: The Hidden Beauty of Seeds and Fruits, Copyright Levon Biss 2021

Stacking photos solves this problem by making the subject – which can be very small, as is the case with most seeds – to appear evenly in focus, even if it has been photographed very closely.

“I installed my camera on a rail, and then I can automate that rail to advance in increments. The camera will take a photo, move maybe a millimeter, take another photo. This provides me with a large stack of images, each with a small element of focus. Then I smash them together, and that’s how I can get all the details, ”says Biss.

It was not an easy task, as each image includes up to 150 individual photographs, and it is the result of a careful selection process: “For six months we went through thousands and thousands of boxes, then tens of thousands of specimens, to try and find the ones that were visually intriguing and had an interesting story behind them, ”he says.

A race against time

The seeds and fruits that were selected represent only a tiny fraction of the three million specimens housed in the herbarium of the Royal Botanical Garden, the oldest of which dates from 1697. “What was really interesting was that the photographer did not choose them from a point of view, and yet it is incredible how many of these plants are really endangered. I actually think it’s scary, ”Gardner says.

The specimens kept in the herbarium are used for research purposes, with the ultimate goal of identifying each and naming new species. “There is an integral link between what we call taxonomy, or the naming of species, and conservation. If a plant doesn’t have a name, you can’t keep it, ”Gardner explains.

Enchanting photos of seeds and fruits show why these are nature’s engineered wonders

Biss used a technique called photo stacking to capture the detail of seeds and fruits, including this Abrus precatorius (Rosary pea). Credit: The Hidden Beauty of Seeds and Fruits, Copyright Levon Biss 2021

He adds that the Royal Botanical Garden classifies around six new species each month and that many specimens in the archives do not yet have a name. Many may already be extinct, as the institution is still working on material collected almost 100 years ago.

“It’s a race against time right now, and it’s becoming more and more urgent due to the global threat to many species. Many plants have gone extinct in Amazon rainforest fires, for example, before we can even name them. to be sitting somewhere in a herbarium, waiting to be identified, ”he says.

Drawing attention to seeds and plants is essential to direct conservation efforts towards them. “The only thing we have for us is the fact that without plants nothing else would survive. We need plants for oxygen, for 80% of our medicine, for much of our food and for food. clothes we wear, ”says Gardner. .

“The future depends on how we sell this item to the public. And it’s pretty hard to get that message across,” he adds. “I think we have to do better.”

Biss hopes her photographs can give her a hand. “My work is like an educational tool,” says the photographer. “I’m curious what I can’t see – and the seeds, once you look at them on a macro scale, are spectacular. If I’m curious about anything, I’m sure someone else must be curious too. “

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