Botanical project: leaf skeletons (non toxic)

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Whenever I discover a leaf skeleton in the garden it feels like a little piece of magic. Rare good luck, like finding a four leaf clover or seeing a double rainbow. The circumstances for nature to create a leaf skeleton have to be just right: damp enough for the fleshy parts of the leaf to decompose, sheltered enough (probably under other leaves) to encourage microscopic organisms to eat away at those leaves, and somehow exposed at just the right time for me to find the leaf while all those lovely veins are still in place, before it breaks or blows away. 

I love to send leaf skeletons as gifts in my mail. They are something special, precious, a memento from my garden or a walk I've taken that is tinted with enchantment. But because they are so hard to find, I wanted to learn how to help nature along, and make my own leaf skeletons. Turns out there are several ways to do it, following processes that range from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, and using everything from water and pantry ingredients to caustic substances requiring rubber gloves and goggles, and straight-up bleach.

I have tried three of the non-toxic methods, and am here to share them with you today.


Step 1: Pick & prepare the leaves 

No matter what method you use, some steps to making leaf skeletons are always the same: 

  • Choose your leaves: for best results, choose leaves that have a strong vein system. Tougher, more waxy leaves have better results than softer, younger leaves
  • Clean the leaves: gently rinse them in a bowl of water, and wipe any dirt or mud away with a soft cloth. If the dirt is stubborn, use an old toothbrush to (gently) scrape it away

Step 2: Choose your method

How you choose to make your leaf skeletons will depend on the time you have available, the materials you have in the cupboard, and how willing you are to work with potentially caustic substances. Here are the pros and cons of the three methods I'm sharing today. If you click on any of the methods below, you'll jump straight to the relevant instructions. 

a) Water

Pros: 
* Completely safe
* Nature's method
* Gentle on leaves

Cons: 
* Takes several weeks
* Gets gross and smelly

b) Bicarb & baking soda

Pros: 
* Completely safe
* Easy to find ingredients
* Relatively fast results

Cons: 
* Can be rough on leaves
 

c) Washing soda

Pros: 
* Supposedly faster
* The Internet loves this method (lots of tutorials)

Cons: 
* Dangerously caustic
* Hard to find ingredients
* Can be rough on leaves


Step 3: Make your leaf skeletons 

a) Water method

  • Take a shallow dish (like a baking dish) and fill it with water. The dish should be ceramic or glass, not metal (I don't know why. Maybe it's to avoid rust, or has something to do with the minerals or chemicals in metal?). Place the leaves in the dish (it's ok if they're on top of each other) and weigh them down with something heavy to ensure they stay covered with water. 
  • Leave the water to sit for between three and four weeks. It will get murky, and start to smell really bad (like a vase when you've left cut flowers in it for too long). 
  • Take one leaf out of the murky water, place it on a flat surface, and gently try to brush away the gunk and membrane from the leaf. Use an old toothbrush (softly), or a paint brush if you're worried the toothbrush will break the leaf. If it's too tough, put the leaf back into the water and give it a few more days to soak. 
  • Rinse the leaf in clean water. If necessary, continue brushing away any remaining pieces of the pulp while it's in the water. Once you're done, lay it on a paper towel to dry.  

b) Bicarb soda & baking powder method

  • Dissolve equal parts bicarbonate soda and baking powder in a saucepan of water. I used one tablespoon of each, and approximately a litre of water. 
  • Place your leaves into the pot, and bring it to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, stirring it gently from time to time. The water will froth up, and will get brown and murky. 
  • Watch the leaves until they have softened, and you think they are ready to clean away. This could take several hours (I was using hardenbergia leaves and it took about an hour and a half). If necessary, top  up the water from time to time to ensure they leaves remain covered. 
  • Take the leaves out of the saucepan and place them into a shallow tray of clean water. Using and old toothbrush, gently try to brush away the gunk and membrane from one leaf at a time. If the leaf is too fragile, use a paint brush instead of a toothbrush. 
  • Once you're done, lay the leaf on a paper towel to dry.  

c) Washing soda method

Note: washing soda is not the same as baking soda. Washing soda is sodium carbonate: it's a powerful cleaner and non-toxic, but is highly caustic and definitely not edible. Wear gloves and goggles while working with it, and try not to inhale any dust that might float up when you stir. 

  • In a saucepan, dissolve 3/4 cup of washing soda in about one litre of water. 
  • Place your leaves into the pot, and bring it to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, stirring it gently from time to time. The water will froth up, and will get brown and murky. 
  • Watch the leaves until they have softened, and you think they are ready to clean away. This could take several hours (for some reason the camellia leaves I was using took forever - like about six hours - but general consensus on the Internet is up to two hours). If necessary, top up the water from time to time to ensure they leaves remain covered. 
  • Take the leaves out of the saucepan and place them into a shallow tray of clean water. Using and old toothbrush, gently try to brush away the gunk and membrane from one leaf at a time. If the leaf is too fragile, use a paint brush instead of a toothbrush. 
  • Once you're done, lay the leaf on a paper towel to dry.  

How to make washing soda

If you can't find washing soda at the shops, try this easy at-home process.

Pre-heat your oven to 200C (400F). Spread two cups of baking soda evenly on a large baking tray, and place it in the hot oven for about half an hour. You'll know the transformation has happened when you look at the powder: washing soda is more grainy and dull than baking soda, and when you stir things around (not with you fingers!) you'll see it doesn't clump together. If you're not sure, grab some baking soda and put the two side by side, to see if they look different. 


Step 4: Press the leaves 

  • Leave cleaned leaf skeletons in a warm, sheltered place to dry for approximately one hour. 
  • Once you are sure the leaf is completely dry, place it between two paper towels and store it under a heavy book until you are ready to use it. 

Step 5: Decorate 

I prefer to leave the leaf skeletons their natural colour, but you can absolutely play with other decorative ideas if you wish. After all the pulp has been removed but before you dry and press the leaf skeleton, you could place it in bleach to whiten it, or in food colouring. Alternatively, once dried and pressed, you could carefully paint the leaf skeleton (metallics look really great!). 

That's it! If you decide to make these, let me know how you go. I'd love to see how they turned out, and learn what you think of the process. 


ps. I've been working on a little video to show people how to make leaf skeletons using Method 2 (the baking powder and bicarbonate soda method), as part of a "botanical crafts" course I'm developing. The video is not finished yet but, in the meantime, I've created a printable tutorial using screen-grabs from the video to give you a more visual step-by-step guide, if you think that will help. You can download that tutorial here: 

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