by Becky Barak
Seed germination is like magic. Seeds seem like nothing. Small, brown, and dry, it’s easy to forget that they’re alive. When I study germination in the lab, I carefully place each seed on a bed of agar to keep it moist, and check on them, usually three times a week, to see which ones have germinated. One day, it’s just a seed. Often, for many days, it’s just a seed. Then, sometimes, I come back and look at it, and there is a tiny structure - the radicle, which will become the root - breaking through the seed coat.
When I study seeds under the microscope, I see all kinds of amazing things. The textures of the seed coat and the emerging radicle. The way the radicle bursts through the seed coat, and how depending on the species, that can happen in different ways. One of my favorite prairie species, the Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), has a seed that looks like a little cap, or a fossilized insect (see the photo, or it's number 2 in the drawing above). As it grows, the radicle pushes up on the seed cap, and emerges like it’s opening up a door. That’s germination and I will never get tired of seeing it.
Anyway, to get to the point, I love seeds, and I study their germination. I did a study (with collaborators) of germination of 32 species typically used in restoration of the tallgrass prairie. We wanted to see whether we could predict how quickly a seed would germinate given measurements of the seed. To do this, Taran Lichtenberger, amazing research intern, measured over 3,000 seeds in total. For each seed in the experiment we knew it’s weight, shape, and even the measurement of it’s seed embryo from x-ray photos. We followed each seed to determine what day it germinated. We found that narrow, pointy seeds germinate faster than round ones.
When it came time to publish the paper, the journal asked for an organism photo to go along with it. “An organism photo?!” I thought. How could I supply an organism photo when there are 32 different species in my experiment!!!??? I didn’t have photos of every species I had used in my experiment, and I didn’t think photos would capture the detail of each species of seed. I posted a note to twitter asking if anyone had photos of prairie seeds that I could use as my organism photo (with full credit of course). I got a response from Julia Ferguson, who posted a drawing she had made of seeds of 9 prairie species arranged into a flower shape, with a dime in the center to show scale.
A drawing would be the perfect way to show the diversity of seeds of 32 different species. A scale drawing would tell the story of the the differences in size and shape of these seeds that we used a balance and microscope and ruler and x-ray to measure in the scientific study! And Julia - a skilled scientific illustrator that was in my mentions was the perfect person to do it! AND, even though it seems like she really likes to illustrate birds, fish and mussels and stuff, she does amazing work with plants too. We went through a few drafts. With each one Julia took my suggestions, and made something even more beautiful. I also know I’m so lucky to be in a fellowship that supports (and funds!) collaboration and science communication of all types.
The stars and the seeds were aligned. Julia captured each species and created a beautiful piece of art that I am so thrilled to have alongside my paper, and that I’ll cherish forever. She also helped start me off on a path of science and art collaboration. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about the time I did science slam poetry.
Becky "Rudbeckia" Barak is a plant community and restoration ecologist, a founder of Plant Love Stories, and a 2017 Smith Fellow studying biodiversity and restoration in the midwestern tallgrass prairie. Becky tweets about plants (and a few other things) at @BeckSamBar and still occasionally misidentifies plants.
Julia Ferguson is a scientific illustrator who regularly paints, draws and designs all sorts of natural subjects. Julia works with birders, bird-lovers, plant lovers (!) nature enthusiasts, scientists and researchers to create paintings, drawings, illustrations, diagrams, and logos.
Both drawings above are by Julia Ferguson. The spiderwort seed photo is from Prairie Restoration, a digital aid featuring seeds, seedlings and fruit.