As they descend, the autorotating seeds of maples and some other trees generate unexpectedly high lift, but how they attain this elevated performance is unknown. To elucidate the mechanisms responsible, we measured the three-dimensional flow around dynamically scaled models of maple and hornbeam seeds. Our results indicate that these seeds attain high lift by generating a stable leading-edge vortex (LEV) as they descend. The compact LEV, which we verified on real specimens, allows maple seeds to remain in the air more effectively than do a variety of nonautorotating seeds. LEVs also explain the high lift generated by hovering insects, bats, and possibly birds, suggesting that the use of LEVs represents a convergent aerodynamic solution in the evolution of flight performance in both animals and plants.