The interior of this spiky datura pod looks remarkably like a brain.
The interior of this spiky datura pod looks remarkably like a brain. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

In the gorgeous new book "Seeing Seeds," award-winning photographer Robert Llewellyn and prolific nature writer Teri Dunn Chace delve into the fascinating world of seedheads, pods and fruit — ensuring you'll never look at these important plant parts the same way again.

Zamia furfurcea
The red seeds of the cardboard plant, Zamia furfurcea, fall easily off the female cone. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

As you flip through the book, it doesn't take long to understand how unique seeds are from one other, despite being united in the pursuit of their ultimate function — reproduction.

"There is a lot of diversity among seeds, but there are also identifiable patterns or types," Chace explains in the book. "Even some truly weird-looking novelty seeds conform to categorization, even if it doesn't seem so at first glance."

What makes "Seeing Seeds" really stand out is Llewellyn's crisp macro photography, which masterfully combines a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world with an unyielding fascination for the science that makes it all possible.

The seeds of the Flanders poppy are capable of laying dormant for decades.
The seeds inside the capsule of a Flanders poppy are capable of laying dormant for decades. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

Based out of his studio in Earlysville, Virginia, Llewellyn (pictured below) has spent his life photographing the natural, and in the last several years, he's focused his lens on bark, leaves, flowers and — more recently — seeds.

While challenging at times, the journey has proved well worth the effort, as Chace writes in the introduction of the book:

"Photographing seeds, pods and fruits requires a far amount of inventiveness and flexibility. Sometimes [Llewellyn] had to carefully slice open a fruit to reveal its hidden contents. Sometimes he had to search a room for seeds that had flung out in his absence. Sometimes he had to soak, dry, coax, pry or pin plant bits to expose seeds. He went down the rabbit hole into a wonderland."

Learn more about his inspiration and process in the interview below.

Robert Llewellyn in his studio
Robert Llewellyn in his studio (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

MNN: 'Seeing Seeds' is the third installment of a book series that also includes 'Seeing Trees' and 'Seeing Flowers.' What inspired this multi-book journey?

Robert Llewellyn: I published a book called "Remarkable Trees of Virginia" and traveled the state photographing trees. There was a sudden realization that trees were alive. They were another civilization living with us on Earth. They were born and they died. They made flowers and seeds and sent their children out into the world. I wanted to know more, so I studied and photographed parts on the tree. I started looking at Earth as if I was visiting another planet for the first time. I was amazed at what was hiding in plain sight.

I found it worked better to study them in the studio. So the next book was looking at the life of trees. "Seeing Trees" got me interested in flowers, so I did "Seeing Flowers" I realized the flower was only there to be pollinated and produce seeds and seed pods — the plant children. So, continuing the journey, I did "Seeing Seeds."

It is a never-ending journey since there are 400,000 flowering plants in the world.

Eastern red cedar "berries" are actually small, seed-bearing cones.
Eastern red cedar "berries" are actually small, seed-bearing cones. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

What role do you think art plays in the pursuit of scientific understanding?

The old watercolor botanical drawings were made with great detail on white paper. They were intended to be educational and often came out beautiful. The artist started with a blank white sheet of watercolor paper. They could light and arrange anything they wanted.

In my studio, I put plants on a white light table under my camera. I looked to see what called out to me. A part would wave at me, "over here" I always went "wow" with this array of color, texture, and shape. Humans say "wow" when they see something new. Usually what called out to me as a photograph also became the most revealing of the botany.

Dandelion seed fluff
Every seed of a dandelion is equipped with its own stalk and fluffy parachute. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

What techniques do you use to capture such uniformly crisp and detailed photographs of these tiny subjects?

With macro photography, I did not get everything in focus like the painters did in the botanical paintings. I discovered a technique called "focus stacking."

I would make a series of the same images but each with a different focus point. Sometimes I had a stack of more than 100 frames. I then added these frames to "stacking" software and clicked on "render." Everything sharp in each frame would be added to a single final image. I had infinite focus.

Larkspur seed
Larkspur seed (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

I photographed a larkspur seed (above) with 150 frames. It is the size of the period at the end of this sentence. When the final image was rendered, I went "wow". It had jellyfish-like fins. I have searched but have never found out why. The more I journey, the more I find things that are still unknown.

Robert Llewellyn's studio
Robert Llewellyn's studio (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

Were there any particular seedheads, pods or fruits that were a challenge to document?

I wanted to photograph the osage orange seed pod in the early spring when it had long stigmas, like light green hair, all over it. I climbed the tree, cut one, and brought it back to the studio to put on the light table. The "hair" had completely wilted in a few minutes. So I guessed that the osage orange, with its milky sap, must be "pressurized", and lost pressure when I cut the stem. I went back with a blow torch, climbed the tree, cut another one and immediately burned the end of the stem. It stayed un-wilted for an hour for its photograph (below).

When it's young, osage orange is almost entirely covered in stringy stigmas.
When it's young, the osage orange seed is almost entirely covered in stringy stigmas. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

Of all the specimens you photographed, which ones did you find most fascinating? Most beautiful?

The most fascinating has to be the castor bean (below). I was working in my studio one day and heard a loud pop, following by brown seeds ricocheting around the room. The pod had fired three seeds 30 feet.

I photographed the seed and noticed a yellow glob on the end. I researched it and found that the seed is picked up by ants and taken underground where the young ants feed on the high-fat glob. The glob is not internally connected to the seed, which is actually highly poisonous. The remaining seed is "disposed of" in the ants underground refuse pile, thus "planting" the seed for the castor bean. What a plan.

Castor beans contain ricin, an highly toxic poison that can kill if ingested.
Don't eat these. Castor beans contain ricin, an highly toxic poison that can kill if ingested. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

My favorite to photograph was the devil's claw (below). It has two giant extremely sharp (talking drawing blood here) claws that are designed to catch on large animals and be transported distances and then finally trampled, releasing four seeds. This pod was a beautiful piece of sculpture no matter which way you looked at it.

Devil's Claw seed
Devil's Claw seed (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

What's next for you? Is there another 'Seeing ...' book in the works?

Yes — "Seeing the Forest." So I [will be] out of the studio and into the woods. I have tried photographing animals on my light table but they hop off or fly away. So I am photographing in the forest, and yet again visiting another planet. (Also one where many things are trying to bite me or sting me or poison me.) The book is about who lives there and how they are interdependent. My favorites so far are ring snakes, turkey vultures and old-growth trees. Lots of "wow" moments.

Chinese Lantern seed
The shell-like calyces of the Chinese Lanterns house round, marble-size seeds. (Photo: Robert Llewellyn/Timber Press)

Photos are from "Seeing Seeds: A Journey into the World of Seedheads, Pods, and Fruit," Copyright 2015 by Robert Llewellyn and Teri Dunn Chace. Published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.