Seeds

A Traveling Roadshow of Beauty and Inspiration

By: Jennifer Jewell
Jennifer-Jewell

Jennifer Jewell is the creator, writer, and host of the public radio garden program Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History…

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Luminous individual wafer-like seeds of a Lomatium seedhead. Photo: John Whittlesey

Luminous individual wafer-like seeds of a Lomatium seedhead. Photo: John Whittlesey

Seeds: Nature’s Artful Engineering is a traveling exhibit of photographs, interpretive information, and hands-on activities. The exhibit is the third in a series of natural history exhibits conceived and created by John Whittlesey and me.

John Whittlesey is owner of Canyon Creek Nursery & Design in interior Northern California and a garden designer, plantsman, landscape contractor, and avid photographer. He is author of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias published by Timber Press in 2014.

I am the native plant curator at Gateway Science Museum in Chico, California, and the creator and host of Cultivating Place: conversations on natural history and the human impulse to garden, a weekly public radio gardening podcast from North State Public Radio.

Enjoyment of and appreciation for the amazing diversity and beauty of the natural world, in the wild and in the garden, directly inspires our work. This exhibit is designed as a vehicle for us to share our excitement about the incredible diversity of seed forms, evolutionary adaptations, and dispersal techniques with others.

Clockwise from upper left: Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), fairy lantern (Calochortus albus), and the curious bladder-like seedpods of California native Astragalus whitneyi. Photos: John Whittlesey

Clockwise from upper left: Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), fairy lantern (Calochortus albus), and the curious bladder-like seedpods of California native Astragalus whitneyi. Photos: John Whittlesey

Artful engineering

The science of seeds and seed dispersal is a vast field of botanical study known as seed ecology, or carpology. The exhibit, which introduces visitors to basic seed ecology and a range of amazing seed structures and dispersal mechanisms, is organized by the primary way a seed is dispersed: by gravity (weight), by wind, by wildlife, by water, or by mechanical projection.

Compare the weighty “nuts” of California buckeye (Aesculus californica) with the lighter-than-air seeds of milkweed (Asclepias sp.). Photo: John Whittlesey

Compare the weighty “nuts” of California buckeye (Aesculus californica) with the lighter-than-air seeds of milkweed (Asclepias sp.).
Photo: John Whittlesey

Seed structures and their many ingenious dispersal strategies are elegant in their simplicity or their intricacy. They can be beautiful to behold in the way they catch the light, the wind, the water, and the attention of passers-by. Consider the magic of blowing on a ripe dandelion seed head, or pausing to pick up a perfect acorn and putting it into your pocket.

Evidence of seed-bearing plants—spermatophytes—first appeared more than 300 million years ago. Since the earliest seeds, plants have evolved to include seed ferns, conifers (gymnosperms), and flowering plants (angiosperms). Seeds and their associated dispersal structures (together known as diaspores), as well as their dispersal modes, have diversified into the remarkable feats of natural engineering we have today—ensuring the continued success of the plant kingdom.

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) seeds are contained within propeller-like samaras that help distribute ripe seed. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) seeds are contained within propeller-like samaras that help distribute ripe seed. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Seed stories

Seed transport—how seeds disperse—is just one part of the story of flowering plants. Seeds result from successful pollination in flowering plants, or angiosperms, which have evolved closely with their pollinating insects. Flowers, offering up nectar, attract pollinators that carry pollen between like species of plants. This method of pollination allows for genetic diversity, which in turn helps plants continually adapt to changing climates and habitats.

The seed stage of a plant’s life is the only time it is both dormant and mobile. Through evolution, seeds have given the plant kingdom the ability to diversify and expand to almost every corner of the globe.

Once mature, seeds drop and roll, are flung, they fly, hitchhike on animals, are transported by birds and bears, carried and buried by ants and beetles, and moved from one place to another by water. Seed dispersal is an evolutionary adaptation that helps continuity of the species and is fundamental for population persistence.

A ripe seedpod on a Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii) splits to reveal its cache of seed. Photo: John Whittlesey

A ripe seedpod on a Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii) splits to reveal its cache of seed. Photo: John Whittlesey

Seeing seeds

The Seeds exhibit is designed to encourage others to notice interesting seeds. We wanted to provide viewers the chance to learn more about common native plants—seeds that anyone might see in the natural areas around them. We also included images of some of the more marvelous seed forms to pique visitor interest. During the research and development phase, John and I took fabulous field trips to photograph and collect specimens and to research seed ecology literature.

As in our previous exhibits on pollinators and mushrooms, we wanted to incorporate human artistry in some way by having a painter or an illustrator create and contribute their work to the exhibit. Ultimately, we commissioned Northern California watercolor artist Candy Matthews to create three paintings, each depicting an iconic seed type and its faunal relationship. The three paintings depict a milkweed flower to seed cycle with a monarch butterfly; a valley oak and acorn seed cycle with an acorn woodpecker; and a native California dogwood flower to fruit cycle with a migrating cedar waxwing.

Dramatic silk banners designed by Elizabeth Kuper and incorporating illustrations by Candy Matthews lend a human touch to the exhibit.

Dramatic silk banners designed by Elizabeth Kuper and incorporating illustrations by Candy Matthews lend a human touch to the exhibit.

Local graphic and fine artist Elizabeth Kuiper, of Pixel Perfect Studio in Chico, California, then transformed Matthews’ paintings into three grand scale (two-and-a-half-feet wide by eight-feet-tall) silk banners, which hang throughout the exhibit. The finished banners contribute a dramatic and dynamic human and artistic element to the exhibition.

Large silk banners, pictured here at the Gateway Science museum in the spring of 2015, help to bring the art and nature of seed ecology to life. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Large silk banners, pictured here at the Gateway Science museum in the spring of 2015, help to bring the art and nature of seed ecology to life. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Seeds are critically important to all of life—for the future health and diversity of the world’s plants, and as an important food source for wildlife and humans. In developing this exhibit, it’s our hope that Seeds: Nature’s Artful Engineering will light up curiosity and imagination and prompt viewer’s engagement and observation.


Students at Gateway Science Museum matching seed specimens to flower photos. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Students at Gateway Science Museum matching seed specimens to flower photos. Photo: Jennifer Jewell

Further Resources

The “Seeds: Nature’s Artful Engineering” exhibit will be at the Hi Desert Museum in Yucca Valley from January through March of 2017. Visit the Exhibit Envoy website to learn about future venues hosting the exhibit.

Exhibit Envoy’s mission is to build new perspectives among Californians, create innovative exhibitions and solutions, and advance institutions in service to their communities. www.exhibitenvoy.org.