Enchanting photos of seeds and fruits show why they are nature’s engineering marvels


Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

The world’s largest seed, 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 that it grew on palms native to the Seychelles, seamen who caught a glimpse of one drifting in the Indian Ocean thought it came from mythical underwater trees. That’s how it got its name, meaning “coconut of the sea.”
Its rarity and suggestive shape led to even more folklore. People believed it had amazing healing powers and that it was the fruit of complex mating rituals — between trees! — that only took place on stormy nights. As a result, it became a prized possession for royalty and the wealthy.

Today the legends have long dried out, but the coco the mer — also known as double coconut or Lodoicea maldivica — is still very much sought-after and commands high prices in antique shops. However, overharvesting and poaching have endangered the species, with only 8,000 mature palms left in the wild on just two islands.

“It was traded for centuries, but the trade is now banned,” says Martin Gardner, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. “It’s on a special list along with elephant tusks, rhino horns, (and) pangolins — as well as many other plants.”

A macro photograph of the coco de mer (Lodoicea maldivica) housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

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

Now a new side of the coco de mer is on display, as one of 100 seeds and fruits that were specially selected from the Royal Botanic Garden’s herbarium by photographer Levon Biss, in collaboration with the institution’s botanists. Biss then photographed them for an exhibition and a book, using a special technique that makes them almost look like artworks.

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

A painstaking process

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

Photographer Levon Biss specializes in macro images of insects and botanical subjects, including his new seeds and fruits exhibition.

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

Photo stacking solves this problem by making the subject — which can be very small, as is the case with most seeds — appear uniformly in focus, even though it was photographed very closely.

“I set my camera up on a rail, and then I can automate that rail to move forward in increments. The camera will take a picture, move by maybe one millimeter, take another picture. That provides me with a big stack of images, each with a tiny piece of focus in it. Then I squash those together, and that’s how I can achieve all the detail,” says Biss.

It was no easy task, as each picture is made of up to 150 individual photographs, and it was the result of a painstaking selection process: “Over six months we went through thousands and thousands of boxes and then through tens of thousands of specimens, to try and find those that were visually intriguing and had an interesting story behind them,” he says.

A race against time

The seeds and fruits that were selected are a tiny fraction of the three million specimens housed in the Royal Botanic Garden’s herbarium, the oldest of which dates back to 1697. “What was really interesting is that the photographer didn’t choose them from a conservation point of view, and yet it’s amazing how many of these plants are actually threatened. In fact, I think it’s frightening,” says Gardner.

The specimens conserved in the herbarium are used for research, with the ultimate goal of identifying each one 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 conserve it,” says Gardner.

Biss used a technique called photo stacking to capture the detail of the seeds and fruits, including this Abrus precatorius (Rosary pea).

Biss used a technique called photo stacking to capture the detail of the 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 Botanic Garden classifies about six new species each month, and that many of the specimens in the archive don’t yet have a name. Many might already be extinct, because the institution is still working on material that was collected almost 100 years ago.

“It’s a race against time at the moment, and it’s getting more and more urgent because of the global threat to many species. A lot of plants have disappeared in the Amazon forest fires, for example, before we could even name them. They might be sitting in a herbarium somewhere, waiting to be identified,” he says.

Bringing attention to seeds and plants is essential to drive conservation efforts towards them. “The one thing we have going for us is the fact that without plants, nothing else would survive. We need plants for oxygen, for 80% of our medicines, for a lot of our food and for the clothes we wear,” says Gardner.

“The future depends on how we sell that point to public. And it’s quite difficult to get that message across,” he adds. “I think we have to do better.”

Biss hopes his photographs can lend a hand. “My work is like an educational tool,” the photographer says. “I’m curious about what I can’t see — and seeds, once you look at them on a macro scale, are spectacular. If I’m curious about something, I’m sure somebody else out there has to be curious as well.”



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