This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #46 (April, 1999).

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Common Plants for Paper

Seasonal cycles affect some people more than others but few can ignore the coming of spring, when life bursts forth at every opportunity in every locale--from mountain meadows to sidewalk cracks. With such drama unfolding, even non-gardeners yearn to get their hands in the dirt and be a part of it all. Papermakers, like cooks, can expand their experience by growing their own raw materials, thus enjoying more control over--and connection with--the finished product.

While it is possible to make paper from the fiber of thousands of plant varieties, some are more suitable than others. Fibers can be too short to bond into a strong sheet, too difficult to extract from the plant without expensive equipment, or unattractive for a variety of other reasons. It helps to follow others’ lead at first, and grow plants known to produce interesting papers. Then begin to experiment. Branch out, so to speak.

Here are a few suggestions. These plants grow fairly fast and easily in temperate climates. Start with plants like these and you will have a plentiful supply of fiber within a year or two. They fall into three categories: grass, leaf, and bast fibers.

The so-called “grass” fiber plants are often the easiest to process. If you have room, plant some Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana), an exotic-looking mound of coarse-edged leaves, with white or pale pink cotton-candylike flower plumes rising up to twelve feet above. Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) grows and spreads so quickly that many suggest planting only in a large pot or confined area. Choose from dozens of varieties of Corn (Zea mays) to grow your food and paper fiber simultaneously. All of the above grow happily with lots of sun in just about any type of soil.

Among the leaf fibers, fast spreading Hosta (Hosta fortunei) is your best bet for ground cover in shady spots. In sunnier areas, try Yucca (Yucca filamentosa), whose four-foot high clumps of stiff, sword-shaped leaves launch dramatic spikes of gorgeous blossoms in the summer. One of the easiest perennials to grow is the Iris (Iris germanica and other species). Their delicate blooms put on a great show in early summer, and their clumps of glossy deep green leaves look good all year.

Bast, or “inner bark” fibers are the most commonly used for hand papermaking. A tasty choice is Raspberry or Blackberry (Rubus spp.) whose branches die after flowering and bearing fruit and can be easily removed, especially the thornless varieties. Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) grows fast and easy since it is, well, a weed. And though it is harder to find and harder to grow, Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) is worth an effort given its rich tradition as the raw material for much of the world’s best handmade paper.

Once a few of these are in the ground and taking root, sit back with a good book and watch them grow. Here are some suggestions: Plant Fibers for Papermaking by Lilian A. Bell; Papermaking with Plants by Helen Hiebert; Handcrafted Paper and Paper Products made from Indigenous Plant Fibers by Harold and Marjorie Alexander. While these offer a particular emphasis on selection and preparation of plant fibers, any beginning papermaking book will provide enough information to get you started come harvest time in the fall.

Copyright 1999 Hand Papermaking, Inc.