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The Architecture of Leaves: Art and Atlas

March 13, 2019 | Douglas C. Daly and John D. Mitchell

This Malaysian Cissampelos, in the Moonseed Family (Menispermaceae), is an example of a peltate leaf. Image courtesy Douglas C. Daly.

Except for the ones that change color in the fall, leaves are often relegated to the status of a mere appendage of the plant, there simply to provide food to where the real action is for both beauty and evolution, namely flowers and fruits. We became interested in the architecture of leaves because through something analogous to machine learning—essentially Gestalt—we consistently recognized patterns in leaf venation but had no idea how we recognized them. Thus began a long period of training our eyes and helping to craft terms for the patterns we saw. In the process, we were ever more awestruck by the beauty of these intricacies, and how much more we have to learn about them. Welcome to a world where form can be irrelevant, sex is kind of boring, redundancy is a virtue, and being connected is nothing to be ashamed of.

Douglas C. Daly, PhD, is Director of the Institute for Systematic Botany and B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses on the systematics of the tropical tree family Burseraceae (which includes frankincense and myrrh) and the flora of Amazonia. For the latter, he is interested in strategies for identifying tropical trees, particularly in forest inventories.

John D. Mitchell is Adjunct Scientist at the New York Botanical Garden and a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. He is the world authority on the systematics of the Anacardiaceae or cashew/poison ivy family, and he sits on the Board of a number of conservation organizations. He and Dr. Daly are both part of the Leaf Architecture Working Group.