confocal image of plant

Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas

confocal image of plant
Confocal image of Diplopterys cabrerana 

Confocal microscopy, also known as confocal laser scanning microscopy, is a specialized optical imaging technique that provides contact-free, non-destructive measurements of three-dimensional shapes. In this case, plants considered sacred by indigenous groups of the Americas were scanned at St. Lawrence University’s microscopy and imaging center. The procedure gathers information from a narrow depth of field, while simultaneously eliminating out-of-focus glare, as well as permitting the creation of optical sections through biological samples. Images are built over time by gathering photons emitted from fluorescent chemical compounds naturally contained within the plants themselves, creating a vivid and precise colorimetric display.

To pay homage to sacred plants revered by indigenous groups throughout the Americas is a way of honoring the entire world in a time of environmental emergency. The exhibition—at the juncture of art, technology, and science—magnifies life in ways that may alter how humans perceive other living entities from our shared and threatened biosphere in more egalitarian terms. The plants reveal themselves as 21st-century extensions of biomorphic forms that were the genesis of abstract works by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee one hundred years previous. Some of the plants contain the most potent psychoactive agents on the planet and serve as intermediaries that have enabled native communities to communicate with their ancestors, wage war on the enemies of their land, conceptualize entire cosmogonies, and maintain a nearly impossible equilibrium. Perhaps each stoma, trichome, and patterned fragment of xylem and vascular tissue in these vital portraits is not only a way into previously unseen vegetal realms, but also a way out of our collective crisis.  -Jill Pflugheber, Microscopy Specialist, and Steven F. White, Lewis Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures (retired)

The Brush Gallery presented a comprehensive exhibition of the images in Spring 2020. To view 70 confocal images, visit the Microcosms digital image collection on JSTOR. Additional information about the collection can be found at