A Fantastical Journey

The Thousand Fields Seed Museum

2019 / July

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

If they didn’t grow up in a farming family, or study agriculture in school, most people have little chance of learning about seeds. But seeds are a source of life, and their lives can be astounding: they can fly through the air, they can drift on the ocean, and they can remain dormant for years, all in order to carry on life into the next generation.

Visiting the Thousand Fields Seed Museum on Dong­feng Road in Tai­nan City’s North District, we push open the mahogany doors and make our way into a semi-open-air space occupied by trees and vines. As if going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, we embark on a fantastical journey of seeds.

Fantastical journey

“The great majority of seeds need to leave the mother tree and find soil,” explains museum owner ­Liang Kun­jiang, better known as “Papa Liang,” as he shows us some of the seeds on display.

There are many pathways by which they can leave. Some plants have evolved “ptero­sperm­ous” seeds with special wings that can carry them away on the wind. When ­Liang opens the long, narrow seedpod of the African tulip­tree (Spathodea campanulata), one seed after another floats out, each transparent and as thin as a ci­cada’s wing, with a heart-shaped embryo in the center. “This seedpod contains thousands of seeds. The tree uses quantity to increase the chance of seeds finding soil.”

Then there is the big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macro­phylla). Its single-winged seeds spin as they fall, and embed themselves in the soil. In Taiwan they mature in March and April, falling to the ground before the “plum rains” of May, when the seeds germinate. Everything has been well arranged by Nature.

Other seeds are dispersed by water, using the flowing currents to carry them far away. These are called “drift seeds,” “drift fruit,” or “sea beans.” “What’s special about drift seeds is that there is an air pocket between the seed itself and the seed coat. Outside they have a leathery shell to protect them, while inside they are partly empty, so they can float on the water.” ­Liang shows us a “box fruit”—the seedpod of the fish poison tree (Barringtonia asiatica)—which is larger than the palm of his hand. In Taiwan, this species is mainly distributed across Orchid Island, Green Island, the Heng­chun Peninsula, and Xiao­liuqiu.

Some plants produce fruit with unique smells or flavors that attract birds and animals to eat them, and the seeds are carried away in the process. One example is the cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis), which produces large round fruits with woody shells that break open when they fall to the ground, giving birds and animals access to the pulp and seeds inside.

In our brief half-hour tour, ­Liang Kun­jiang tells us the stories of many seeds, taking us on something of a fantastical seed adventure. Each and every seed has its own life history, expressing the different ways that Nature has figured out to extend life to the next generation. “When you think about why they are the way they are, in fact they are telling us the meaning of life,” says Liang.

Seeds: The source of life

The space that hosts the seed museum was originally the workshop where husband-and-wife team ­Liang Kun­jiang and Zhao Ying­ling did landscape design. Many years ago, when their son ­Liang Chao­xun returned from studying music in the UK, he convinced his parents to transform the space into the museum.

“My idea at the time was simply that it would be a fun thing to do,” says ­Liang Chao­xun, who serves as the museum’s director. He felt that it was sad that no-one was able to appreciate the things his parents had collected over their lifetimes.

There are more than 500 types of seeds in the mu­seum’s collection. Papa ­Liang has found the vast amount of knowledge required for so many seeds in reference books. “I have a truckload of reference books, and all my money is spent buying books. I buy all kinds of books on botany from home and abroad.”

Seeds are not only beautiful, they also have extra­ordinary attributes, and knowledge of them can help us to survive. Confucius urged people to “become familiar with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.” For example, the traveler’s palm tree (Ravenala madagascariensis) is a lifesaving plant that can help in outdoor survival. The leaf sheaths and base can store water, so if you run short of water while in the wilder­ness you can cut them open to relieve your thirst. The blue-colored seeds are a rarity in Nature, and are used by Zhao Yingling for artistic creations.

Liang Kunjiang brings out a seedpod of Hawaiian woodrose (Merremia tuberosa), which is shaped like a dried flower. Like the morning glory (Ipomoea nil), the woodrose belongs to the convolvulus family. After it flowers, the sepals become lignified, with the seeds wrapped inside. The mouth of the flower-shaped funnel faces upward, so that when it rains it fills with water. This softens the outer shell of the seedpod until it breaks, at which point the water carries the seeds away from the mother plant to begin their journey in search of soil.

The rosary pea (Abrus precatorius) is a species often seen in southern Taiwan. The seeds, which are bright red with a black spot, are beautiful, but they carry a deadly toxin. However, when birds eat rosary peas, they will not be poisoned, because they have no teeth and directly swallow the seeds. Birds have simple digestion systems, and the residue of digested food is quickly excreted. What’s amazing is that this process is enough to trigger germination of the seeds, so if there are rosary peas in bird feces, 100% will germinate. For ­Liang Kun­jiang, this astounding natural symbiotic relationship validates the ideas that life will find a way and seeds are a source of life.

Biodiversity in Taiwan

“In fact, Taiwanese are spoiled by Nature and take it for granted,” says ­Liang Chao­xun. “Because we live in an environment rich in plant life, we don’t feel that there is anything remarkable about this kind of diversity. But if we take a trip abroad and compare, we will discover that plant life in Taiwan is diverse and abundant.”

According to a survey by the Forestry Bureau, more than 59,000 species of living organisms have been identified on the island of Taiwan, with its limited land area.

Around the world, most of the regions that lie along the Tropic of Cancer are desert, but Taiwan is one of the few exceptions. The proximity of the ocean and the seasonal monsoons moderate the climate, bringing large quantities of rain and humidity that enable our small island to avoid desertification. This, combined with Taiwan’s diverse topography, means that the island nurtures a wide range of different ecosystems, creating habitats for a rich variety of species.

“The land of Taiwan is a veritable seed bank. Just go out into the countryside, grab a handful of topsoil, bring it home and sprinkle on a little water, and you will end up with all kinds of little flowers growing out of it that you don’t know the names of,” says Liang.

Many plants have become naturalized after arriving in Taiwan, where they grow robustly and vigorously. One example is the golden shower tree (Cassia fistula), which comes into blossom in early summer. In its native India, people break open the outer shell of the seeds to release a pungent, sticky liquid containing saponins, which they use as a cleanser. Because Taiwan has Chinese soapberry (Sapindus mukorossi) among its native species, here the golden shower tree is regarded as a purely ornamental plant. Royal poinciana (Delonix regia), the official tree of Tai­nan City, has made an even more impressive journey: An exotic species that has become naturalized in Taiwan, it came all the way from the distant island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.

Many of these pieces of knowledge seem to be things we once learned from our school textbooks, but at the seed museum the information is no longer fragmented, but is all linked together. By understanding the process of plant evolution through contact with the seeds in the museum, we build new links with Nature.

Many foreign travelers visit the seed museum, and ­Liang Chao­xun has gotten an especially strong impression from visitors from Hong Kong and Singapore. “Visitors from these two places are very conscious of the en­viron­ment,” says ­Liang. For example, Singapore is kept excessively clean: even weeds growing out from cracks in walls are pulled out, and seeds that fall from trees are immediately swept away. There is little evid­ence of the natural, easygoing environment of Taiwan.

Living like a seed

The Thousand Fields Seed Museum only collects seeds from Taiwan’s lowland areas. They leave mountain seeds right where they are—in the mountains.

The indoor space at Thousand Fields was built alongside trees. “The trees were already there, so we built the structure in between them,” says Liang Chaoxun.

On their farm in Ping­tung County’s Li­gang Township, the ­Liangs have likewise adopted a laissez-faire attitude. Whenever they find a seed they like, they just plant it and wait for it to grow. “We are pretty free and easy,” says Papa ­Liang. “We only take as much as Nature gives us.”

Zhao Yingling says that her use of seeds to make artistic creations is likewise attributable to the clever designs of Nature. She says: “We don’t make these things: they grow the way they do, and all I do is arrange them.” Take for example the high-heeled shoes made from the seedpods of mahogany trees combined with plumed cockscomb (Celosia argentea). In southern Taiwan’s hot, humid climate, after the mahogany seedpods burst they curl up, and Zhao uses them for the elegantly curved arches of the high heels.

When we ask the family to pose for a group photo, they decline our request. “We like to let the seeds play the leading role,” says Liang Chaoxun.

A friend sent Liang Kunjiang a poem by Xin Qiji: “Seek happiness in small things, live your life without regard to whether your talent is used for great things or not.” For a whole lifetime, this family has wandered happily in the world of plants, and this is a true portrait of life at the Thousand Fields Seed Museum.

Here there is no expounding of grand theories, there is only fun and interest. Yet in the process of interacting with seeds, one can understand the mindset of “seeing the world in a grain of sand.” This is the unspoken meaning of seeds.

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