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Arnold Arboretum

Arboretum exhibition explores seed diversity and dispersal

October 25, 2013

Magnolia soulangiana

Grey fruiting body and red seeds of saucer magnolia, Magnolia soulangiana.

The thousands of trees, shrubs, and vines that visitors encounter at the Arnold Arboretum exemplify the abundant diversity of Earth’s woody plants as well as the many adaptive strategies they employ to ensure the success of their offspring. Autumn is a great time to explore this phenomena in the Arboretum landscape, as many plants produce and shed their seed at this time of year. Dispersal: Photographs by Anna Laurent, an exhibition opening at the Arnold Arboretum on October 26, illustrates the fascinating ways that plants have evolved to disseminate seeds through beautiful, highly-detailed photographs.

Seed plants are classified by botanists as gymnosperms and angiosperms. Conifers, gnetales, ginkgo, and cycads comprise the gymnosperms, a word which literally means “naked seed” because the ovules are not enclosed. In contrast, angiosperms have evolved a dizzying array of coverings for their seeds, and botanists have classified more than 150 distinct fruit types, including berries, drupes, nuts, and samaras. Dispersal is the term applied to the methods employed by plants to move their seeds to new locations and improve their chances of germinating, whether by wind, water, animals, or through their own mechanical means.

On view in the Arboretum’s Hunnewell Building through January 26, the images captured by Anna Laurent expose the complex and often ingenious ways that plants have evolved to disperse seeds. As a photographer and columnist for Print magazine’s online blog, Imprint, she has made a unique study of the plants she has encountered, from the urban wilds of Southern California to the rain forests of Hawaii, the deserts of northern Iraq, and public gardens throughout the United States. For this exhibition, images of seed pods were captured exclusively at the Arnold Arboretum, highlighting select examples of dispersal mechanisms employed by both flowering and non-flowering plants in the living collections. Individually, each of the 33 photographs included in the exhibition is a fine art portrait of a unique botanic specimen; as a series, it is a scientific exploration of reproductive adaptation and the diversity of botanic design.

A related exhibit in the Hunnewell Building Visitor Center displays exemplar seeds from the Arboretum’s collections and herbaria, along with an activity table where various seeds can be magnified for closer examination. The exhibit includes specimens of the world’s largest seed—the coco de mer, Lodoicea maldivica, a palm from the Seychelle islands—as well as the smallest, the nearly microscopic seeds of orchids. Also on display are examples of the world’s longest pine cone (the sugar pine, Pinus lambertiana), heaviest pine cone (Coulter pine, Pinus coulteri), and a comparative collection of seed pod adaptations from winged fruits to the inspiration for Velcro (burdock, Arctium lappa). Additionally, the Arboretum has developed a self-guided tour spotlighting the plants photographed for the exhibition. Available via the Arboretum’s mapping application, Arboretum Explorer, the tour enables visitors to extend their exploration of seed dispersal mechanisms and phenomena into the Arboretum landscape.

A Los Angeles-based designer, writer, photographer, and documentary producer, Anna Laurent studied evolutionary theory and biological anthropology at Harvard University and graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art. She served as a producer, photographer, and writer for The Iraqi Seed Project, a documentary film about the flora and environment of Iraq and Kurdistan. Her current projects are a series of educational plant-oriented media to advance botanic literacy, including a botanic field guide to Los Angeles.


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