• Paula Ogilvie

From Plants to Paper

By: Paula Ogilvie:


As you read this issue of Colorado Gardener, or anything else in print, consider the paper that holds the articles and images. When we think of the source and process of making paper, trees usually come to mind, or possibly grade school lessons on how Egyptians made paper from papyrus. The word paper derives from the word papyrus. While not considered “true” paper, papyrus is made by pressing long strips of leaves together, then gluing and attaching it to rods. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a famous example.


From the bark-like cloth of the Mayans and Polynesians to the rice paper found in the Orient, many ancient cultures also used paper-like materials for writing, drawing, and even clothes. The earliest paper making record is found in China and credited to Ts’ai Lun, main eunuch of the Emperor Ho-Ti, AD 105. Over time, the process traveled to Japan, then to the Middle East, and then to Europe, with each culture adding something to the process and often using different plants. Originally paper was made from fibers of linen, cotton, and hemp rags but the process was expensive and slow. As demand increased, rags were in short supply and the cost increased, resulting in the phrase “from rags to riches.”

From Plants to Paper

After a French naturalist noticed that wasps, the original paper makers, made their nests from chewed wood, trees soon became the main source of paper. Production slowly increased with the advent of the printing press. As demand continued to grow, paper-producing machines revolutionized the process, albeit with an increase in water pollution. Today, “true” paper by definition is made from trees.


We don’t usually observe wasps stripping bark or wood from fences, but their nests are noticeable. Paper wasps produce small, umbrella-shaped nests composed of chambers that contain their eggs. You may find them under furniture, under roof-eaves and overhangs, or inside barbeque grills, mailboxes, or old bird houses. Bald-faced hornets (actually a type of yellow-jacket wasp) make more spectacular nests high up in trees. Often the size of basketballs or larger, these delicate looking nests contain eggs covered by layers of grayish paper. They survive strong summer winds, rainstorms, and hail, only becoming visible once leaves have fallen.


Rice paper, also known as mulberry paper, is made from tropical mulberry trees found in Thailand, other Asian countries, and the Pacific Islands. Considered very beautiful, it is still made in small family-owned workshops today. The process produces a sweet smell from the mulberries. In Mexico, a thick, dark bark paper known as amate paper, is made from trees in the fig family and often brightly painted with birds and flowers.


In paper making, plants’ fibers are separated from each other and then matted together in thin sheets. Wood chips are boiled in caustic chemicals to separate out the fibers. The separated fibers (“pulp”) can be further processed by bleaching, sizing agents, and chemicals to improve texture and color absorption.


Newspaper is made from wood pulp. Modern paper products are currently made from softwoods such as pine and spruce with long fibers that impart strength. Hardwoods have shorter fibers that produce papers best used for printing and writing. Cotton produces high quality papers for important legal documents. Paper money uses 75% cotton, 25% linen. Since computers have not lessened the demand for paper, fast growing conifer trees are a primary source of paper pulp. Tropical trees are rarely used.


Unlike animal cells, an outer protective cellulose wall surrounds all plant cells. This cellulose fiber found in fruits, vegetables, leaves, and stems is an important part of our diets. Humans can’t digest cellulose, but it provides the fiber roughage we need to keep us regular. These fibers aren’t usually as strong as those used for papermaking. Plants also have long cell fibers with thick cellulose walls (the water transport cells called xylem) that impart strength to plants and to paper and textile products.


Make Craft Paper from Plants in Your Garden


Many different plants found in our gardens can be used to make beautiful craft papers. Although the Internet and the PBS Create channel show how “easy” it is to make your own paper, I had the opportunity to work with local multi-talented artist, Gail Boyd. A printmaker, Gail has also worked with many different types of materials and processes, from traditional knitting, to spinning buffalo hair, to raising moths for their cocoons. A passionate gardener, she has taught paper making classes for both adults and kids.


For our papermaking class, Gail collected iris and daylily leaves during the early spring yard clean-up. (When harvesting leaves in spring, remove just the outer layers to ensure the plant continues to grow. In fall remove all dry dead leaves.) These non-woody plants have a strong fiber content and are fairly easy to work with. Long leaves are usually the best source of fiber, however leaves of yucca and hemp will require longer processing. Even grass clippings from lawns can be used. Once collected, hose them off, chop into pieces, and boil to loosen the fibers. (Gail loved the earthy smell but joked that her sons did not.) Next grind the fibers in a blender. Pour the pulp on a wire frame, and sponge off excess water. Place the paper sheet on a flat surface with weights to hold it down while it dries.


You can experiment with different plants to produce different quality craft papers. Papermaking can also be an interesting opportunity for gardeners to better observe leaf structure. Save some leaves for papermaking and others for the compost.

Paula Ogilvie is an Academic Science & Math advisor at the Community College of Denver (CCD). She has taught Botany for Gardeners classes and Botany at CCD, Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG), and University of Denver.