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Botanical Printmaking: Art and Science Education in Botanical Gardens

Contributed by Leonore Alaniz, 519 East 82 Street, Apt. 5B, New York City, New York 10028, USA.


Botanical Printmaking is also known as ‘Nature Printing’. It is quite different from the art of ‘botanical illustration’. It is one way of recording the physical appearance of a plant, by means of inking it and imprinting its image onto a surface, which is usually paper. Besides botanical materials, Nature Printing includes traditionally many ‘natural’ objects and substances, such as insects, fish, shells, rocks, the human body, as well as textiles and other artificial objects. For the purpose of this study, the author will limit herself here to the application of plants as one area of nature printing and name it ‘Botanical Printmaking’.

Historical Background

References to the process of nature printing and its uses began with Leonardo da Vinci's descriptions of ink recipes for botanical/leaf-printing. It was perhaps his interest and discussion of the process that inspired botanists (in particular German botanists), beginning in 1760, to further develop this medium. Their writings indicate an increasing demand for scientific information about the remedial applications of plants, and indeed they promoted the use of their illustrated and descriptive books to apothecaries, medical doctors and lay-people. These botanists printed few editions, inking the plant anew, (including its root system), with lamp-black for each impression. Their printing methods limited repeated use of a plant, and the greatest care was needed to assure consistent printing detail. Hand coloring was part of the documentation process, which at times obscured the delicate veins and skeletal plant structure.

Detailed descriptions of the plant's remedial uses, location and time of harvest accompanied the printed plates, sometimes in two or three languages (German, Latin, French or English). The largest collection of botanical nature-prints is assembled in the book Ectypa Plantarium Ratisbonensium. It includes 1000 prints of small plants native to the region of Ravensburg in southern Germany.

By the late 18th Century, botanical printmaking had become recognized as a source of inspiration for the applied arts, for such objects as textiles, wallpaper, furniture, and decorative objects for the home. The technique was praised for its educational values, and for its appeal as a past-time.

Contemporary Opportunities for Botanical Print

Only in the last few years have non-toxic art and craft materials become available, of the types that make botanical printing suitable for audiences associated with botanic gardens.

Applications of this technique, and workshops that can be developed using this technique were presented as inspiration to the congress attendees, or as information ready to be put to practice in the botanical gardens they work in. How the relationship of art and science can be experienced with the help of hands-on projects and workshops for various audiences will now be discussed and illustrated. They are ideally implemented as part of out-reach programs conducted by botanic gardens.

Audiences include:

Children, adults and families

The focus is on diversity in nature and how it symbolizes diversity among humans. Includes ‘calleaf graphy’ banner printing with spiritual symbolism. The art-science aspect is explored in an interactive, playful manner

Educators working in environmental education

These include park rangers, community leaders, neighborhood gardeners and staff working in nature centers, museums, municipal and regional parks. Educators without art experience will find botanical printing an extremely easy way of illustrating botanical diversity, plant anatomy and the recording of variety, habitat and growth-specific data

Art and design educators

In private and public schools, college or trade schools. Botanical art and particularly botanical printmaking is an instantly rewarding way of studying composition, texture and proportion, and they relate, for example, to architecture, mathematics, and the interdisciplinary theories of order and chaos in nature

Therapists and rehabilitation specialists

These can apply botanical printing in their work. The activity engages the entire person, in that it unifies an individual's sensory, intellectual and emotional appreciation of plant structure

Recreational instructors

Those who work with people who have special needs

Volunteers and staff

Who create botanically-imprinted items (scarves, notecards, posters, neckties, for example) that can be sold in botanic garden gift shops, or at events attended by the public. Botanical printing is an educational and lucrative tool for fund-raising and public relations.

Personal Background, Teaching Experience and the Creation of Botanical Prints

This presentation at the congress was interwoven with ‘show-and-tell’ segments that included botanical prints on banners, scarves, posters and notecards. My professional background is in textile design, and my first explorations with leaf-printing were done entirely for commercial purposes; I directed a group of previously inexperienced teenagers and adults in the mass-production of hand-printed table linens for a major New York City department store. Since this project four years ago, my fascination with leaf-printing has continued to grow, in that it now embraces other plants, especially weeds and grasses. In addition to printing textiles that are sold throughout the USA, I teach botanical printmaking in municipal environmental education centers, art centers, and in schools.

It is here that botanical printmaking comes to full bloom. Each person interprets the possibilities and techniques presented to them in unique ways, often reflecting the diversity of their racial and cultural heritage. So while it is valid to use the art of botanical printing solely for scientific purposes, it has shown much scope for artistic exploration; the boundaries of traditional botanical illustration are stretched into contemporary environmental art and craft.

Visual Presentations: Art-Science Objects and Slide Transparencies

The presentation at the Congress also included slides taken during a leaf-printing workshop conducted in Central Park, New York City with families living in the nearby East Harlem neighborhood. Although it was late April at the time, and the majority of leaves available were from the previous fall (brittle, brown leaves), the tropically colored prints on paper, and the banners created by the class participants bespeak the richness of their ‘inner’ state of mind.

Poster prints were produced on white posterboard (24x 40 inches). They featured impressions of common weeds harvested in an abandoned lot in the Bronx area of New York City. Each plant was inked with black acrylic paint and subsequently placed onto the whiteboard. The task was difficult to do, because of the plant's increased weight, and tendency to droop down onto the page. (Such printing is ideally suited as a team activity in a classroom.) The plant was then covered with another large sheet of paper, and with equal pressure on the plant, two impressions were made simultaneously. Naturally, all layers of the set-up, plant and papers must remain in the same position until the impression is complete and the top paper is removed. With some practice, beautiful display posters can be created by staff, students or volunteers, which can be further embellished with hand-coloring and calligraphy.

Leaf-printed silk scarves are created from pre-sewn, imported silk scarf ‘blanks’, available from art and textile craft stores. Textile inks that are fixated with heat are most suitable for this project. (Deka is a German-made internationally sold brand). The scarves can be sold for fundraising, and they are also the subject of classes which guarantee filled workshops.

Leaf-printed Banners illustrate the application of botanical printmaking for art-science projects and for botanical education. The idea of banners was seen as an ideal medium to have a portable means of making many statements without the use of many words.

The statements are designed to:

  • raise awareness about (street) trees, the urban forest, and native forests throughout the world
  • illustrate the diversity of trees and the diversity of leaf shapes
  • make the analogy between plant diversity and human individuality on all levels
  • inspire ecological and spiritual symbolism as an applied art form
  • re-introduce the traditional technique of nature / botanical printing in a contemporary manner.

Banners suitable for indoor and outdoor display were imprinted with the images of 108 individual leaves. Each banner was dedicated to one tree variety, for example the ginkgo tree. This tree is very much part of the (New York) ‘urban forest’ in that it lines many of the streets. The following poem is dedicated to the ginkgo trees of New York.

Ode to the Ginkgo Tree
One ginkgo tree
and one hundred and eight of its leaves
each one unique
part of one greater unity.

One hundred and eight ginkgo trees
lining the street.
Are they the same?
Willfully present each one
rooted as you and i
with purpose in shared destiny.

One park
many trees.
Do you see their variety?
The wind moves their trunks and branches
and leaves resound to be heard by you and me.

Their shade in Autumn yields to sun,
absorbed with color, life
the tumble and we recognize
their path diverse is in this last
free-fall surrender of identity.

Life and decay
in imminent proximity
in seasons measured still by you and me.

But the ginkgo tree?
Imbued with medicinal substance
it pledges timeless allegiance.

Incarnate sum of consciousness
that we perceive as tree,
one hundred and eight of its leaves
beholding infinite harmony.

Leonore Wertel Aliniz
In celebration of the Ginkgo trees linking the street I live on. New York City. Winter 1995/6

In a shorter version written specially for children, the poem was written on one of the three banners shown at the Congress. The images of the leaves on the banners were imprinted with black, opaque ink on to white, semi-transparent fabric. Their stark, graphic images contrast with the subtle irregularities of nature. On each banner, the leaf imprints were arranged in a different way:

  • In the first banner, leaves are in nine rows, separated by hand-written lines of poetry.
  • In the second banner, leaves are arranged as Rosetta, or mandata.
  • In the third banner leaves chase each other in spiral fashion, like the tail of a kite, going into the infinity of the sky.

The first and second banner bear the imprints of 108 individual leaves, stemming from one tree for each banner. Because the leaves are arranged in a distinct orderly manner, the viewer realizes how unique each leaf is. The same as how each finger-print reveals the individuality of a person.

The number 108 was chosen to symbolize 108 ‘perfect natural creations’. Each leaf symbolizes a complete life-cycle, from unfolding to decay. The life-cycle of leaves also illustrates the paradox of communality (appearance, common source, fate and cycles) and individuality. (The poem makes specific reference to this.) The number 108 is sacred in Vedic and Buddhist teachings. It represents nine times twelve. Prayer beads are strung in nine sections of twelve; a mantra is recited 108 times; so is the name of God, as in the sound of "Aum".


Botanical printmaking is an art and a science. The emphasis of classes and/or workshops can be on:

  • the playful collaboration with plants
  • the scientific documentation of plants
  • decorative art and craft.

Classes and workshops can be run by adults and children in rural or urban environments. Workshops can also be tailored to meet specific space and time requirements. No previous experience is needed and while botanical printmaking is an instantly rewarding activity, it requires few inexpensive materials and equipment.

On a practical level, botanical printmaking can earn significant financial revenue. The classes and workshops are popular, and also, items made using the techniques shown, can be sold. Botanical printmaking is a hands-on activity enabling the study of plants, who’s shape, structure and purpose are never incidental. Rather they express infinite diversity and order in nature. Botanical printmaking is a fascinating and addictive pursuit. The aim of this paper has been to encourage you to inspire others (who visit your gardens) to try their hand at it. They will experience ‘in action’ the gentle magic of plants and how they symbolize so much of our own life cycle.