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.
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).
Botanical beads do not arrive only on the sea. They’re literally everywhere. Smith’s collection consists of seeds, fruits, capsules, nuts, stems, rhizomes (the underground stem of a plant), arils (seed appendages), powdered wood (such as sandalwood) and the fragrant powdered seed of a North African tree, Detarium microcarpum. Dried and powdered rose petals can be used to make rose beads. (However, Smith’s rosebead-making Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America prefers to make them with whole petals cooked down into a mash, then rolled into beads.) Beads made from powders, whether derived from wood, seeds, spices, flowers or herbs, are sometimes held together with a substance such as gum mastic or tragacanth.
Smith became interested in botanical beads while living in Thailand with her husband Ed back in the ’70s. There, she picked up her first botanical bead necklace, a beautiful strand of red seeds (Adanenthera pavonina). Her collection began some serious expansion during the 1980s when Ed went birding in South America and brought back seed necklaces. As her collection and interest grew, she asked traveling friends to be on the lookout for seed necklaces, and kept an eye out for any she could find locally. (She advises putting any beads or seeds from other countries in the freezer for a week or two to kill any potential infestation from insects or other voyagers.)
As her seed collection began to grow, Smith realized that her biggest challenge by far would be the difficult task of identifying seeds that already have been altered by cutting or chiseling. She contacted many museums and botanical gardens for help. She hit pay dirt with Charles Gunn and Joseph Kirkbride, Jr. at the U.S. National Seed Herbarium in Beltsville, Maryland; at Kew Gardens in London; and with Robert Faden at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Once they’d helped her put a name to the seed in question, off she would go to the Library of Congress to sleuth and learn.
Over the years, Smith’s collection has grown to hundreds of necklaces. She has cataloged each item in a three-ring binder that includes not only photographs and her own description of each item, but also the history and lore that she has researched on all the botanical beads in her collection. She currently is working on getting the contents onto a website (See “For more information” ). This year, she decided to part with most of her collection and has donated more than 150 necklaces to Kew Gardens, which will exhibit them in the future. The curator there told Smith that the addition of her botanical beads will elevate Kew’s already wonderful collection to a superb one. The Claude E. Phillips Herbarium at the University of Delaware now houses almost 200 of Smith’s necklaces.
It would be difficult to list the many types of seeds, berries and pods that are in Smith’s collection, so what follows is a list of some of the most common plant materials used in necklaces, plus mention of a few of the more unusual ones. Many seeds used for beads, such as rosary peas, castor beans and datura seeds, are toxic, so be forewarned.
Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). Although they look like seeds and are referred to as seeds, Job’s tears are caryopses, the specialized fruit of a grass. Native to Asia, they are the “seeds” most commonly used in ornament. They are almost round and easily pierced, and, because of their pale gray color, they often are dyed. A new widow of a tribal group in New Guinea will wear up to 50 pounds of necklaces made of Job’s tears. She will remove one necklace a day until the period of mourning is over. Cherokee legend has it that during their diaspora from their homeland, the Cherokee people left a trail of tears, and these plants popped up wherever a tear was shed. Medicine men of the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico wore it for protection against sickness.
Chinaberry, Persian lilac (Melia azedarach). Native to eastern Asia, the tree has naturalized throughout the warm countries of the world. Its ridged, melon-shaped seeds are pierced easily for stringing. In India, draping garlands of chinaberry over doorways is believed to prevent infectious disease.
Lead tree (Leucaena leucocephala). This tree, native to Central America, produces small, oval, brown seeds resembling apple seeds, which are made into intricate necklaces and belts. Mimosine, a compound in the seeds and leaves, is a natural depilatory fed to sheep by Australian farmers, to facilitate the shedding of their wool.
Rosary pea (Abrus precatorius). Its extremely toxic, small, round, red seeds with a prominent black spot are a very popular seed for rosaries and decorating ceremonial objects. The seeds, uniform in size and weight, were used as the first system of weights in Africa. The Koh-i-noor diamond, now one of the British Crown jewels, reportedly was weighed using these seeds.
Castor bean (Ricinus communis). These very toxic, handsome, speckled seeds, the source of castor oil, often are combined with other seeds to make necklaces.
Rudraksha (Elaeocarpus angustifolius). Known as rudraksha seeds in India, they may have been the earliest form of prayer beads. Within the blue fruit is a deeply wrinkled, round, brown marble-sized stone, which is pitted and has five lines. It is revered as the most sacred seed for the Hindus who worship Shiva. A full string of prayer beads contains 108 beads and is referred to as a mala.
Tulsi, holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum). For the Hindus who worship Vishnu, holy basil, an herb in the mint family, is the most sacred plant. Pieces of stem are cut and shaped into beads for stringing into prayer beads.
Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium). Necklaces of the highly toxic seeds of Datura are made in Venezuela and Peru. Immature seeds, light in color, are strung with mature black seeds in attractive combinations.
Desert juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). This tree is sacred to many Native Americans. Its small, beige, grooved seeds are splashed with brown and are used as beads by Southwestern tribes. These “cedar berry ghost beads,” as the Navajo call them, were worn by children to keep the night spirits away.
Oaks (Quercus spp.). The various sizes of acorns are a common element in necklaces made in Africa and Mexico. Those from Africa often are dyed. California Indians sewed acorns on the bottoms of their skirts for adornment. Sometimes just the caps are used, combined with other beads or fruits, such as dried guava.
You, too, can make necklaces, bracelets or anklets from the gifts we find in nature. Use your imagination and be creative. Smith says that most of her necklaces are strung on thread, filament or string, sometimes on palm fibers, and she has two made by Austrailian aborigines that are strung on human hair. Your local bead or craft shop carries all sorts of heavy-duty string for beading, from waxed linen to tiger tail, a very thin wire coated with plastic that lasts a long time. Double strands of unwaxed dental floss also work well.
Many types of seeds, pods, nuts or stems can be used as beads. Holes can be made in soft seeds with a needle or a piece of wire. In many countries, beads were soaked and pierced with needles, or burned with hot wire. You will need to drill holes in the harder pods and nuts with a small drill. Be careful not to injure your fingers, as some of the seeds and nuts are quite hard; a vise is handy for holding them while drilling.
Jewelry can be made up of all one kind of seed or nut, or a combination can be used, with patterns laid out and repeated. Many jewelry makers vary the size or color of the beads and add little seed or glass beads in between for variation. Knots can be tied before and after each bead. Most rose bead necklaces have decorative beads in between and the rosaries have some silver and/or chain connecting them.
Susan Belsinger is a member of the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America with Ruth J. Smith, who she also considers a personal friend and mentor.
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