When it comes to admiring plants, flowers can hog all the attention. And though the ephemeral blooms may be dazzling, what appears after the petals fade—the fruits and seeds—are elegant in their own right.
In his new book The Hidden Beauty of Seeds & Fruits: The Botanical Photography of Levon Biss, photographer Levon Biss displays some of the striking and unusual examples of the more functional plant elements that emerge after most people have looked away. The subjects of the photographs in Biss's book come from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s carpological collection. Such repositories help scientists preserve plants to learn about how they function. Each delicate, dry and often fuzzy specimen reveals a little bit more about the range of tools life uses to persist.
White fruit (right) of the Eriosyce aurata plant keeps internal seeds moist and shielded from extreme heat. Even the fruit has its own protection: the prickly sheath (left) foreshadows the needles to come in the fully grown cactus.
Adenocarpus complicatus: This Mediterranean legume grows characteristic pods that twist open when it is time to fling seeds. Examinations of the seeds show they are high in isoflavones, estrogenlike molecules found in soy and other beans that have been studied as an aid for osteoporosis and menopause symptoms.
Woolly dyeing rosebay, or Wrightia arborea: This deciduous tree releases its seeds with tufts of hair known as comae attached. Despite their fluffy nature, comae sometimes boast built-in equipment such as tiny hooks that ensure seeds stick around and germinate before blowing away.
Dangerous-looking fruit is from a water chestnut, a plant that has been part of our diet since Neolithic times. When the green, leaflike petals protecting the base of the flower harden, they turn into the sharp spines seen here.
Needle-leaf featherbush lives in the fynbos region of South Africa, a stretch with more botanical diversity than the Amazon rain forest. The seeds of many species here rely on fire as a cue to start putting out shoots, including those of this particular shrub, which are then dispersed by the wind.
Circular fruit of Anthyllis circinnata, which ranges from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula. Other members of the genus Anthyllis are known for absorbing heavy metals, so scientists have explored using the plants to draw contaminants out of land.
Castor oil plant seeds contain ricin and are thus extremely poisonous. But at one end, each seed has a yellow nodule full of fats that are nutritious for young ants. After hauling their harvest into their nests and pulling off the delicious part, ants chuck the rest of the seed into their trash pile, where the future plant starts to grow.
Fruit of Araujia sericifera, or the cruel plant, which splits down the side and turns inside out to let seeds float away. Considered invasive in California, the vine can smother citrus trees if not removed.
A version of this article with the title “Science in Images” was adapted for inclusion in the September 2021 issue of Scientific American.