Book of Leaves #1: 360 Million Years

Book of Leaves #2: Common Trees of Shanghai

Book of Leaves #3: Seeing Cinnamomum

Book of Leaves #4: Unfolding Study

Guide to Common Trees of Shanghai

Book of Leaves
Plants are stationary, animals move. That simple observation makes a good departure point for considering the elaborate relationships that have evolved between plants and people, as well as the wide gulf that impedes our ability to closely interrelate. In their varied sizes, shapes, textures, colors, fragrances, vein patterns etc. leaves provide a beguiling array of clues for apprehending the strange parallel consciousness of the plant kingdom.

The Book of Leaves incites people everywhere into an exploration, investigation and celebration of the miraculous leaf through four overlapping phases:

Tree species surveys and leaf collection

Leaf pressing & related craft workshops
Botanical research and compilation of “Book of Leaves” digital tree guides
Organization and exhibition of leaf specimens, exhibited as publicly compiled books
The stories that leaves tell include episodes of drought, violent climatic and geological disturbances, migrations, attacks by disease, herbivores and competitors. They also include warm sunny days, the newness of youth, nurturing relationships, triumphs, sexual exchanges and peace in old age. The information conveyed by plants all around us is deeply historical, but it is also essential to the story we are writing for ourselves in the present.

  • We have a limited number of beautiful leaf-related products for sale created in the context of the Book of Leaves workshops and exhibitions. Please contact us to place an order.

    Pressed Cinnamomum leaf earrings

    Pressed leaf paper-cut greeting cards
    ¥40/set of 4 (w/ envelopes)

    Hand-painted flower/leaf presses


Miracles in May

Date: April 30 & May 7, 2017
Venue: Xiangyang Park, Shanghai
Guides: Claire Teng, George Kaye, Angela, Chloe Luo, April Xiong, Amy Hua, Yolanda Hang, Charlotte, Theo, Kitty, Jay, Samuel, Duar, Leyla
Partner: Hunan Neighborhood

A publicly created record of transformations among plants in Xiangyang Park at the start of May!

– Find a plant specimen fallen to the ground (seed, leaf, flower etc)
– Place it on the book (refer to life cycle chart)
– Record the specimen with words and pictures

Treasure Hunt at Sun Commune

Date: March 25-26, 2017
Venue: Sun Commune Farm, Lin’an, Zhejiang
Guide: George Kaye
Sponsor: Sun Commune Farm

A weekend of investigations at beautiful Sun Commune in Zhejiang Province. A treasure hunt, a sun-chasing game, campfire songs & stories, morning tree climb, and production and compilation of a book filled with treasures.

For more information and to register: Treasure Hunt

Springtime Plants & Patterns

Date: March 19 – April 29, 2017
Venue: Shanghai parks (see schedule below)
Guides: George Kaye, Angela Li, Chloe Luo, April Xiong, Amy Hua, Yolanda Hang

Springtime Plants & Patterns is a “playshop” series that will introduce the art and science of keeping field notebooks. Through visits to city parks, guided activities and games we will observe, record and compile our impressions of the botanical world in books that will serve as the basis for a final exhibition as part of the “Book of Leaves” ongoing public art project.

March 19: Bark, Branches and Structure. Fuxing Park
March 26: Leaf Research. Xiangyang Park
April 9: Flower Research. Huashan Park
April 16: Insects and Animals. Jing’An Sculpture Park
April 23: Book of Leaves preparation. Studio 5
April 29 (Saturday): Exhibition, TBD

All sessions Sundays 2pm-3:30 unless otherwise noted.

Registration information

Book of Leaves: Cousins Abroad

Date: August 27, 2016, 12:00pm – 4:00pm
Venue: Fangcundi Market, Yunhai Plaza, Shanghai
Guide: George Kaye
Partner: Fangcundi Market

Compare leaves from the tulip trees of Shanghai with those from Los Angeles, and examine other leaf specimens from trees that grow in distant places. Keyword for the day: allopatric speciation.

Book of Leaves: Branching lines

Exhibition Date: May 22, 2016
Exhibition Venue: East Asia Global Village conference, Cenbo Village, Shanghai
Guide: George Kaye
Sponsor: East Asia Global Village

The lines that describe a tree or a leaf, the lines we draw between species, the lines between nature and culture: all become fuzzy with information when we take a close look. 9:00am: installation set-up; 11:00am: specimen collection; 1:00pm analysis and discussion.

Seeing Cinnamomum

Date: April 23, 2016
Venue: Shanghai 1933, 上海虹口区涤阳路611号
Guides: George Kaye, Shi Xiang, April Xiong
Sponsor: Kick the Gong Around

Twelve portraits of Cinnamomum camphora leaves created during prior exhibitions and workshops will be displayed in a collectively compiled book. Record your impressions in watercolor and add a page. Leaf pressing and leaf hand craft demonstrations throughout the day.

Seeing Cinnamomum

Date: April 16, 2016
Venue: New York University, Shanghai Campus, 1555 Century Blvd, Pudong, Shanghai
Guides: Helen Zhang, Amy Shui, April Xiong, Eden Ruo
Partner: NYU Green Club

The NYU Sustainability Conference invites speakers to present recent initiatives in alternative energy, agriculture, education and related projects around China. The Book of Leaves will give attendees a sensory experience of the remarkable Camphor tree which is dispersed across Shanghai including along the boulevard in front of the NYU campus.

Leaf Research at Time Tree Library

Dates: Sundays, 9:30am-11:00am, March 20,2016 (Tree species survey and drawing); March 27 (Drawing and paper folding); April 10 (theater/dance improvisation and drawing); April 17 (writing and book concept planning workshop).
Venue: Time Tree Library (and nearby sites), Yangpu District, Shanghai
Guides: George Kaye, Da Ni, Shi Xiang, April Xiong.
Sponsor: Time Tree Library

This series of workshops will start with a survey of trees around the campus of Fudan University. We’ll describe the outer qualities of leaves we find using drawing as a perceptive stimulus. In the second workshop we’ll investigate the internal changes within leaves, especially their mechanisms of germinating and growing, through experimentation with paper folding. In the third workshop we will consider leaves as dynamically evolving in relation to their environment through various theater games and brush and ink works. In the final workshop we’ll review artworks and related research and plan for a book compilation / exhibition event.

Book of Leaves: Camphor Study

Workshop Date: April 10 & 24, 2016, 1:00-3:00pm
Workshop Venue: Fudan University (main gate)
Arts Practitioner(s): George Kaye, Shi Xiang, April Xiong
Sponsor: Independent group

Cinnamomum camphora is one of the most populous trees in Shanghai and also among the oldest around, some trees standing at the same spot for over 300 years. We’ll collect leaves in the first workshop and get acquainted with this remarkable plant through observation and drawing. In the second workshop we’ll consider some of the environmental forces that have shaped Camphor’s evolution through theater games and collage artworks.

'Book of Leaves' on Lantern Festival

Date: February 20-21
Venue: Fangcundi Farmers Market, Shanghai
Guide: George Kaye
Partner: Shanghai Roots & Shoots
Sponsor: Fangcundi Farmers Market

The most commonly sighted trees around Shanghai include the ‘London’ plane tree, camphor, Yulan magnolia, ginkgo, deodara cedar and a handful of others. Pressed and dried leaf specimens will be arrayed for viewing, and together with visitors we will add text to a book that may become a cross of a scientific notebook and an artists’ field journal.

    Lantern Riddles (hint: all share the same answer!):

  1. Many mouths to aspirate , but not the air you animals take.
  2. All food comes from the sun, but at the table I’m number one.
  3. A hundred sisters and a hundred bros, some are high and some are low, work by day and sleep at night, all to help our mama grow.
  4. Our shapes may be linear, oval, cordate; our skin may be fuzzy, glossy or mat, but one thing’s for sure: we’re flat!

Book of Leaves: 300 Million Years

Date: October 31-Nov 1, 2015
Venue: The Nest 公益新天地,105 Puyu West Road, Shanghai
Guides: George Kaye, Dong Xiaoxun, Zhou Liying, Helen Zhang, Amy Shui, Li Jue, Xu Xiaoxun
Partner: Shanghai Roots and Shoots
Sponsor: The Nest

‘300 Million Years’ consists of an 8-meter long scroll on which leaves from common trees are arranged in order of each species’ appearance in the fossil record. In their wildly varied shapes, sizes, configurations, textures, numbers, vein patterns, scents, surface colorations, etc. leaves present us with evidence of an epic story occuring over the giant span of geologic time. Episodes in this story include chance discoveries, migrations, species invasions, battles with disease, bad weather, sexual liaisons, sunny days, and thirst, all underlaid by unexpected genetic, metabolic, geologic and atmospheric transformations. The book can be “read” as a continuous narrative, in sections, or by individual leaf.

Saturday, Oct 31: Tree species survey (10:00am); Leaf analysis and discussion (11:30am); Leaf arrangement and inscription (2:00pm).
Sunday, Nov 1: Leaf drawing and watercolor painting (all day).

Most of the tree genera around us go back at least to the Pliocene era, around 2.5 million years ago, when the first hominins (a.k.a. humans) started branching off from other primates. Many more go much further back, like the Magnoliidae (e.g. Magnolias) which diversified around 90 million years ago, and most gymnosperms (e.g. Gingko, Cedar, Cypress) which first appeared as far back as 270 million years ago.


From the time algal life forms first slithered up onto land until today there have been eleven major “chapters” (eras) in the story of plant evolution (and the evolution of the whole earth). The first starts with the appearance of plants on land and ends as atmospheric CO2 reached an all-time high (Cambrian era). It took another 70 million years or so for plants to develop vascular systems, accelerated by a drop in CO2 levels. The next chapter contains the advent of leaves (which were actually re-invented several times over), probably originating as outgrowths to protect plants from expanding populations of herbivores. Effective for gathering sunlight, leaves would have overheated if not for the transpiration made possible by vascular systems and the development of more densely arranged stomata (breathing openings) in connection with lower levels of CO2. By the Carboniferous era vast forests covered the earth. They included many now extinct tree species, individual trees reaching up to 30 meters high. The development of seed plants occurred in response to fluctuating periods of aridity. Seeds, with their fully enclosed barrier, could survive periods of dormancy, germinating when humid weather returned. The gymnosperms (i.e. no ovary or fruit surrounding the seed) include the cycads as well as all conifers and the idiosyncratic Ginkgo.


A chain of cataclysmic events at the end of the Permian era precipitated the extinction of much life on earth, including 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates. The plants fared better, drastically rearranged and with 50% of species wiped out, but most plant families surviving. By the end of the Triassic gymnosperm forests were again flourishing along with myriad new insect groups, many of which are still around, and of course the reptiles. The emergence of the flowering plants was slow going. Leaves that curled around to protect the female gamete gradually evolved to fully enclose it. The petal and carpel are essentially leaves that have evolved to a specialized reproductive function. While they emerged an incredible 150 million years after the gymnosperms, the flowering plants radiated across the newly separating continents, co-evolving with animal pollinators and by the end of the Cretaceous period becoming by far the most dominant and diverse group of plant life on earth. The angiosperms have adapted to a bewildering array of ecological niches over the past 70 million years, harnessing the power of animal dispersers to achieve unprecedented genetic responsiveness. As the plant species have proliferated so have their stories that teach us of strength, hardship, creativity, continuity, partnership and more. The final chapter includes the appearance of humankind on the scene, who through our short history of agricultural and horticultural interventions have become deeply implicated in this unfolding saga.

Xiwai campus tree survey

Date: October 23, 2015
Venue: Chenwai International High School, Songjiang, Shanghai
Guides: George Kaye, Lotus Zhu, Echo Peng
Partner: Shanghai Roots & Shoots

Tree species survey of Chenwai International High School, including campus walk and gathering leaf specimens from the ground. Analysis and discussion will focus on succession and evolution of species over time.

Artful Migrants

Date: June 6-7, 2015
Venue: 2015 Shanghai Ecodesign Fair, Shanghai Kerry Center
Guides: George Kaye, Han Aiying 韩爱颖, Lu Qing 卢清,Zhang Qihua 张琦华,Yang jianghuai 杨江怀, Xi Xiaoyi 席小艾,Xiao Wei 徐晓伟,Amy Shui 水华,Li Jue李爵
Partners: Fireflies Culture 萤火虫文化, Being 碧易环术
Sponsor: Shanghai Ecodesign Fair

‘Artful Migrants’ is a public artwork created for the Shanghai Ecodesign Fair. During the fair visitors choose pressed and dried plant specimens and pin them to a standing mural according to their own logical and aesthetic criteria. The criteria for arrangement may include classical taxonomy, color, size, shape, smell, etc. Visitors may play the role of a gardener, city planner, botanical scientist, or something else as they move specimens around the mural. As the plants are moved around visitors become more familiarized with the delicate structures and special qualities of the local botanical population.

Specimen sorting and exhibition prep
Date: 2015年5月31日
Venue: Studio 5, Shanghai. 169 Jiashan Rd., No. 5

Specimen collection and arrangement
Date: 2015年5月24日
Venue: Fuxing Park, Shanghai. Gate 2, 1pm-3pm,

Field notes: We built a kind of totem pole to honor plants in Fuxing Park today, especially the Ginkgo. In a last-minute hunt around the studio I found some cartons that stacked up nicely in the park. A ginkgo tree was located by the playground and some of its fallen leaves were pinned to the top of the stack, among a haphazard sampling of other botanical specimens. Totem poles are not objects of worship, but are artworks that commemorate exchange and reconnect a culture to wild nature. — George

Specimen collection and pin-up
Date: May 10, 2015
Venue: Jing’An Sculpture Park, Shanghai. Beijing W. Road entrance (Shanghai Natural History Museum main gate), 1pm-3pm.

Field notes: Nineteen species of plants sighted today including camphor trees, a Gingko, 铜钱草,a Magnolia, 红花檵木(Loropetalum chinense), winter jasmine, a species of rhododendron and others less readily identified. — George

A gardener crouched down pulling weeds comments that the weeds he is pulling are medicinal plants. 铜钱草 (tongqian grass) they are called. Some quick research reveals that it is used as a tonic for fever and bowel complaints– and also to battle leprosy, among other ailments. The latin name is Hydrocotyle vulgaris. A toad that dwells among the 铜钱草 hops away. There are lots of them around, says the gardener. Its skin is strange and horrifying, like a leper. Of what medicinal use is the weed to the toad? What gifts has the toad has passed to the weed? — George

Specimen collection and bike ride to Changfeng Park
Date: May 3, 2015
Venue: Zhongshan Park, Shanghai. North Gate No. 2 (Wanhangdu Lu), 10am-12pm.

Field notes: As we were inspecting a small red fruit that had fallen to the ground, two women nearby turned and offered that we were standing next to a pomegranate tree. Another man strolling by concurred, and the three of them then pointed out what they said was a willow tree but didn’t look like a willow to me. Folk knowledge, book learning, wisdom, conjecture and supposition are all on offer when speaking to people about the plants around us. The truth may be elusive… — George

Specimen collection and visit to Longhua Temple Fair
Date:April 25, 2015
Venue: Longhua Martyr’s Park, Shanghai. South Gate, 11:15am-1pm.