A Fantastical Journey

The Thousand Fields Seed Museum
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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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種籽的奇幻之旅

千畦種籽博物館

文‧鄧慧純 圖‧林格立

若非家裡務農,或是修習農業本科,一般人少有機會好好認識種籽;但種籽是生命的起源,而且它的一生可傳奇了,可以飛天、可以下海,可蟄伏數年的等待,只為了傳續生命。


 

走訪位在台南東豐路上的千畦種籽館,推開用桃花心木作的門板,探身進入被大樹、藤蔓盤據的半戶外空間,放眼所見,屋梁上掛著一袋袋、玻璃器皿裡裝的一顆顆、木櫃裡陳列的一株株,全部都是種籽,猶如鑽進愛麗絲夢遊仙境的樹洞般,準備開啟一場種籽的奇幻之旅。

種籽的奇幻旅程

「大多數的種籽都要離開母樹,去尋找土壤。」種籽館主人,人稱梁爸的梁崑將一邊展示手邊的種籽,一邊解說。

離開的途徑很多,具翅植物的種籽藉著演化出來的特殊翅膀,乘風而去。梁崑將撥開火焰木狹長型的莢果,裡面飄出一片片透明薄如蟬翼的種籽,中心有心型的胚芽。「這一個莢果裡有幾千顆種籽,它是用數量來增加種籽找到土地的機率。」

另一個大葉桃花心木,它垂降的姿態是一邊旋轉一邊降落,如馬戲團的空中飛人,因為重力的關係,種籽的一頭會筆直插入土壤,它成熟的季節在三、四月,落地後,剛好遇到五月的梅雨,種籽正好發芽,老天爺安排得剛剛好。

有的種籽則隨波逐流,利用水流將之帶往遠方,這種叫做「海漂植物」。「海漂植物都有一個特徵,種籽跟種皮中間會形成氣室,外面有皮革的殼保護,裡面真空,所以它會浮在水上。」梁崑將展示著一顆比手掌還大的棋盤腳種籽,它和另一種穗花棋盤腳都是台灣原生種,棋盤腳主要分布在蘭嶼、綠島、恆春半島及小琉球,在東南亞各國如果看到它,那應該是從台灣海漂過去的。

有的植物則是靠發出奇特的味道,吸引鳥獸吃食,順便將之帶離母樹,例如棋盤腳和砲彈樹。砲彈樹是幹生花植物,它從樹幹上長出枝條,在枝條上開出橘紅色的花,果實成熟後,會爆開從樹幹上脫離落地,果肉有特殊的臭味,吸引昆蟲鳥獸吃食。

短短半小時的導覽,梁崑將講了好多種籽的故事,我們彷彿也跟著經歷了一場種籽的奇幻冒險,每一顆種籽都有自己特殊的身世,想方設法的把生命傳續下去。「它為什麼要那樣,想一想,其實是在跟我們說生命的意義。」梁崑將說。

種籽是生命的來源

這麼多的種籽故事鮮少能在其他地方聽聞,千畦種籽博物館卻能讓民眾盡情探索發問,導覽結束後,最常聽到遊客問,這個是什麼?那個是什麼?許多人逗留下來,跟梁爸聊天,想聽更多種籽的故事。

種籽館的空間原是從事園藝設計的夫妻檔梁崑將和趙英伶的工作室;多年前,留學英國、學音樂的小兒子梁朝勛回來,說服父母親將空間轉型,成為種籽博物館。

「初心只是『好玩』而已」,館長梁朝勛說。父母收集了一輩子的東西,卻沒人欣賞,覺得可惜。「種籽雖然天天都用得到,如吃飯的米或麥就是種籽,但長久以來一直都沒有人重視它。」

館內收藏了500多種種籽,館長梁朝勛不好意思地笑說,還有一堆因為忘記名字,先被堆置的種籽。當初查到了,卻沒有第一時間寫下來,現在要等著記憶再被喚醒。

這麼多種種籽、如此廣域的知識,梁爸是靠著工具書翻找出來的,「我有一卡車的工具書,錢都買書去了,所有中外植物的書我都買。」只要聊到種籽,梁崑將的眼睛就閃閃發亮,語氣興奮地想將他一生最大的嗜好跟光臨種籽館的民眾分享。

種籽不只漂亮,也很厲害,富藏生存的智慧。孔老夫子曾說「多識於鳥獸草木之名」,例如旅人蕉是野外求生不可不識的救命植物。旅人蕉的葉鞘、基部能儲存水分,在野外缺水危難時,可砍下取水解渴救命,其藍色的種籽,更是自然界少見,被梁媽趙英伶拿來做藝術創作。

梁崑將又拿出形如一朵乾燥花的木玫瑰種籽,它與牽牛花同屬旋花科,開花後,萼片會木質化,種籽被包覆其中。它金銅的顏色讓小鳥以為是枯葉,而不會啄食。漏斗狀的花形口向著天空,當雨來時,被注滿水,種籽的外殼被軟化破壞,種籽就隨著水流離開母體,開始尋找土壤的旅程。

另一種南台灣常見的雞母珠,色澤紅艷帶著小黑點的美麗種籽,卻有著致命的毒素,國內知名抗癌研究學者董大成博士透過萃取它的蛋白毒來對抗癌細胞。但鳥類吃食雞母珠,卻不會中毒,是因為牠們牙齒退化、直接吞食。鳥類是直腸子,食物經過體內消化,短短時間即排泄出來;奇妙的是,這過程就已經幫種籽催芽完成,所以鳥類的糞便如果有種籽,百分之百都會發芽。梁崑將解釋這個自然界奇妙的互助關係,讓民眾嘖嘖稱奇,也正驗證生命會找到出路,而種籽就是生命源頭的道理。

生物多樣性的台灣

「其實台灣人有點近廟欺神了。」忙完上午的導覽,梁朝勛才能鬆口氣,坐下來跟我們聊聊種籽館的故事。「因為我們身處在這麼豐富的植物環境裡,而不覺得這樣的多樣性有什麼稀奇。但只要去一趟國外比較一下,就會發現台灣物種是那麼的多元豐富。」

根據林務局的調查報告,土地不大的台灣,島上已發現、經鑑定的物種就有5萬9千多種。

北回歸線經過的地區少有不是沙漠的,台灣是當中少數的例外。海洋調節、季風通過,帶來雨量濕氣,使小島不致沙漠化,加上豐富的地貌,含括平原、丘陵、惡地、高山凍原、森林等各式地形,3,000公尺以上的高山就有268座,孕育多樣的生態系,造就豐富的物種棲息其間。

「台灣的土地就是種籽庫、種籽銀行,你到野外去,抓一把表土回家,灑一點水,就會有很多不知名的小花長出來。」梁崑將說。

許多植物到了台灣歸化生根,還長得頭好壯壯。像初夏的黃金雨阿勃勒,來自印度,其原產地是中東,「阿勃勒」是印度語中黃色的意思,當地人敲碎種籽的外殼,裏頭有臭臭黏黏的液體,含有皂素,印度人拿它做清潔用。台灣因為有原生的無患子,因此只將阿勃勒當作景觀樹。台南的市樹鳳凰木更厲害,它是外來種,卻已經在台灣歸化了,它來自遙遠的非洲馬達加斯加。

這彷彿在課本裡學過的知識,卻在種籽館裡得到印證,不再只是片段的資訊,所有的理解被串了起來,從接觸中了解植物演化的所以然,藉由接觸種籽,我們重新與大自然建立了連結。

許多人千里迢迢,特地到館內,只為了一睹某顆種籽,然後就滿足地回去了。種籽館接待了許多外國旅客,梁朝勛對來自香港和新加坡的遊客印象特別深刻。「這兩地的客人對於環境的意識甚為強烈。」梁朝勛說。新加坡城市整理得太過乾淨了,連從牆縫長出來的草都會被拔掉,種籽從樹上掉下來馬上被掃走,少有像台灣保有這樣天然、自在的環境。

像種籽一樣生活

千畦種籽館只收平地的種籽,山上的種籽要讓它留在山上。梁爸說:「我們在山上若能看到種籽一定是裸露在地上,它是在補森林的漏洞,如果把它撿回來,它就沒有機會長大了。」

千畦的室內空間是閃避著樹蓋起來的,「我們不是蓋好房子種樹,是樹已經在那邊,我們把房子從旁邊蓋上。」梁朝勛說。

在屏東里港的農地也採無為而治,只要喜獲一顆種籽,就把它種下,等著長大,「我們比較隨意,老天爺給我們多少,我們就用多少。」梁爸說。像已經種下十年的沙盒樹,今年才大爆發,一家人帶著歡喜的心收成,處理風乾後,像小小扁扁的南瓜,十分可愛。

利用種籽進行藝術創作,趙英伶也歸功是老天爺的巧心設計,她說:「不是我們做出來的,而是它就長那樣,我只是再把它整理過而已。」利用桃花心木內果莢和青葙組合創作的高跟鞋,拜南部天氣的溫、溼度所賜,桃花心木的果莢爆開後會捲曲,就被趙英伶拿來做高跟鞋優美的足弓曲線。在松果的鱗片綴上各色的種籽,喜氣如聖誕樹。用果實組合成一隻貓頭鷹、微笑的小豬、蝸牛,一切都是如此渾然天成。

我們請一家人一起拍張合照,也被婉拒了,「我們習慣讓種籽當主角。」梁朝勛說。

梁崑將的朋友送了辛棄疾的詞句給他,「味無味處求吾樂,材不材間過此生。」一輩子,這一家人優游在植物的世界中玩得樂不思蜀,正是千畦種籽館生活的寫照。

不講大道理,只講玩趣,但在與種籽接觸、相處的過程中,能領略小小一顆種籽「一沙一世界」的境界,這是種籽的言外之意了。

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