Explore the World from Home with Botanical Beads

Ruth J. Smith's amazing collection spans the globe and 35 years.

| December/January 2006

  • Castor bean
    USDA Agricultural Research Service Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.
  • oaks
    Ruth J. Smith
  • Rosary pea
    USDA Agricultural Research Service Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.
  • Ruth J. Smith's collection of botanical beads is now a part of the permanent collection of the Kew Gardens in London.
    Susan Belsinger
  • Jimsonweed
    Ruth J. Smith
  • Job's Tears
    Ruth J. Smith
  • Head Tree
    Ruth J. Smith
  • Chinaberry
    Ruth J. Smith
  • Desert Juniper
    Ruth J. Smith

Spending an afternoon with Ruth J. Smith and her botanical beads is like beachcombing on some exotic shore. Her collection is full of amazing finds — stringed seeds and pods that produce the same mix of curiosity and wonder that shells, stones and sea glass evoke. First inspired many years ago, she has dedicated more than three decades to her collection.

“I’m in awe of a seed’s potential to become a flower, a shrub or a great tree,” Smith says. “The myriad colors, shapes, sizes and textures of seeds are a veritable crazy quilt. Being enchanted with seeds has taken me on a journey all over the world, even while I’ve stayed firmly planted in Virginia.

“I can imagine myself in the central desert of Australia watching aboriginal men and women painting eucalyptus pods with their traditional designs. Or imagine a young boy on a beach in northern Europe picking up a seed that drifted from the West Indies, carrying it in his pocket for the rest of his life. In a small Indian village on the Napo River in Peru, I did see a woman burning holes in seeds with a wire; she heated the wire in a kerosene burner and painstakingly burned a hole through each seed to use in a necklace.” 

Smith’s botanical bead collection and her stories about them provide insight on how seeds, pods, nuts, stems and roots are used for ornamentation throughout the world. A visitor can suddenly feel like a child again, allowed to go through her mother’s jewelry box, admiring and trying on each piece.

Many of Smith’s beads are “drift seeds,” which have traveled the world over, drifting from country to country on the currents and washed ashore on the tides. Throughout the world, drift seed enthusiasts identify these seeds, their origins and drift patterns. An annual symposium for drift seed collectors is held in Melbourne Beach, Florida; Smith has attended several of them.

Look for Sturdy, Surprising Treasures

The tropical seeds that fall into water may float for hundreds, even thousands, of miles, arriving on distant shores miraculously intact. Smith has a bag full of these sturdy, amazing seeds, many of which belong to the genus Mucuna, one of the most common drifters. One of the most impressive in her collection is a golden brown Mucuna the size of a quarter with a black stripe around its center. Its apt common name in English is hamburger bean, and that is exactly what it looks like. There are also round, gray nicker nuts that float to the Florida beaches from Central America. Some float as far as the north shores of England where the seeds at one time were used for marbles (called nickers).

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