In the poem Auguries of Innocence, 19th-century English mystic, poet and artist William Blake wrote about seeing the world in a grain of sand.
Metaphorically he was spot on. However, although less poetic, it would have been more accurate to write about seeing the world in a seed.
For as South African National Biodiversity Institute senior horticulturalist Cherise Viljoen says: "Seeds hold the entire DNA of that plant. They are so cleverly designed that they really are the secret to life."
Wild Harvest: Nectar, Berries, Capsules and Seeds is an interactive exhibition of botanical drawings and paintings of seeds, fruit and specimens curated by Mary van Blommestein in conjunction with Viljoen.
And while the impetus and atmosphere of the exhibition is a joyous celebration of autumnal bounty, there falls a shadow. Life-perpetuating seeds are at risk from SA’s drought, arsonists’ fires, the death of pollinators from pesticides, human encroachment on habitats and the competition from genetically modified nonregenerating Frankenstein seeds.
For thousands of years civilisations have drawn plants for serious scientific and medical purposes or simply for decoration. However, it was only in the 15th century that botanical illustrations really came into their own. The earliest existing botanical illustrations are found in the Vienna Dioscurides, an illuminated 6th-century manuscript by Dioscorides.
As pretty as they may look, successful botanical drawings are born of a rigorous tradition and are regarded as highly accurate scientific representations. In spite of the advances in photography, illustration remains the preferred medium.
Viljoen says botanical illustration is far more flexible than photography. Every part is shown in focus and, unlike photography, an illustration may seamlessly combine many specimens. "There’s a special connection between artist and the illustrated plant. It’s intimate, nothing is hidden from the artist," she says.
Although flowers may be the carriers of romance, sadly they are not considered sexy or terribly cool.
This was borne out by the loyal attendance of well-heeled, blue-rinsed, plant-fan suburbanites who braved a wet Cape morning to attend the opening, and the pronounced scarcity of the hip and young.
It’s ironic when you consider that the flamboyant eye candy of the floral kingdom is almost pornographic in the flaunting of its sexual bits, all phallic pistils and shaking stamens.
The exhibition grew out of Viljoen’s observation of Van Blommestein’s last exhibition, Wild Flowers and Pollinators.
It shifts away from the overt patriarchal lens of the flower as peacock and swaggerer to the more feminine aspect of the floral world. It’s the quieter, more intimate, often hidden, shy, subtle, internal world of seed, pod and capsule. Not forgetting the seductive housing and dispersal mechanism, the fruit.
Viljoen feels "a special affinity with those artists [in the previous exhibition] who had included pollinators or seed capsules as part of the plant’s life cycle, so seldom focused on".
The botanical paintings and drawings in the current exhibition may be rather traditional in execution, but the idea of focusing on seeds, fruits and cones instead of the flowers of traditional botanical illustration breaks the mould and is a first for this partnership.
Drought has become foremost in many South African minds. And while plants may die from lack of water, Viljoen points out that the seeds are remarkably resilient. The testa or seed case can resist moisture loss and seeds can read the temperature and even time of year.
"The seed is the plant’s natural resting period, the part of the lifecycle specifically designed not only to perpetuate the species but to overcome by avoidance annual environmental conditions," she says.
The laws governing seeds and plants are quite complex and even cumbersome.
SA holds 6% of the world’s biodiversity. In 1993 the country became a signatory to the convention of the biological diversity treaty.
When questioned about the efficacy, Viljoen considers the signing to be a good thing as it is part of a global strategy to conserve the biological resource provided by flora.
She says SA is well equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to contribute. The treaty protects global commercial entities from coming in and harvesting biological resources without giving back.
"There are also national regulations within SA," she says.
This is how it works: if I collect seeds from a plant growing on a verge in a town with the intention of growing it, I need to apply to the municipality for permission to take the seeds.
Likewise, if I want to collect seeds on a farm I need to apply for a permit from the local nature conservation department in which I state whether the collection is commercial or private before approaching the farmer.
"Secure seed banks are vital," says Viljoen, "especially given the extinction of certain plants such as the Erica verticillata, now extinct in the wild, a result of human expansion.
"However, thanks to the seed bank many plants at risk can be conserved with the possibility of being reintroduced into a protected area, hopefully within original habitat."
The interactive aspect of the exhibition takes the form of the opportunity to handle seeds and pods displayed in hand-turned wooden bowls, mostly crafted from indigenous trees. Many of the plants displayed are edible.
The opening day menu featured chutneys, jams and the fresh fruit of the bright num num, or Carissa macrocarpa (ouch, ouch in Khoi San because of its sharp and poisonous thorns), the red milkwood berry, or Mimusops obovata, tiny wild black olives, and cross berry, or Grewia occidentalis, all of which grow on our doorsteps.
Meanwhile, Chris Lochner and Catherine Theron represent the new generation of botanical illustrators — Lochner for his unusually tall sepia watercolour of a Watsonia borbonica and Theron, who breaks with colour with her black-and-white etching of a Pelargonium articulatum and Pelargonium cucullatum.
Theron has sap in her DNA. Her mother owns a nursery at Kirstenbosch and her grandmother was a botanical artist.
Lochner is fascinated by plants as found objects. His watercolour is painted from an uprooted Wastsonia specimen, complete with flower spikes.
If you want to support the creatures in your garden and create a healthy bio system, Viljoen suggests you plant wild sage (salvia), wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus), butterfly bush (Buddleja), aloes and wild honeysuckle (Tecomaria), all of which are water wise.
• Wild Harvest: Nectar, Berries, Capsules and Seeds, an exhibition curated by Mary Blommestein at the Irma Stern Museum.