How to Make Leaf Skeletons

The fine art of creating leaf skeletons has been around since the period of the Ming Dynasty in China. (Photo: Sapsiwai/Shutterstock)

When I first heard about leaf skeletons, I thought they were some kind of kitschy Halloween-inspired decor in which creepy skeletons were created using fallen leaves. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Leaf skeletons are elegant and intricate designs created by distilling a leaf down to its very essence.

The art of creating leaf skeletons has been around for centuries, as far back as the Ming Dynasty period in China. The book "The Phantom Bouquet: A Popular Treatise on the Art of Skeletonizing Leaves"published in 1863 — details several methods used to produce skeleton leaves.

Today, there are a number of ways you can make these delicate designs, all of which require patience, trial and error, and maybe even a little luck. But once the technique is mastered, the results are absolutely amazing.

Here's how to get started.

1. Gather Your Supplies

  • 1/2 cup washing soda (NOT baking soda)
  • Leaves (Glossy leaves like those from a magnolia or gardenia work best)
  • Metal pot or saucepan
  • Tweezers
  • Spatula or tongs
  • Small paint brush or soft toothbrush
  • Latex gloves
  • Water
  • Bleach (optional)
Magnolia leaf
Glossy leaves, like this one from a magnolia tree, work well for making leaf skeletons. (Photo: Fleckstone/Shutterstock)

2. Mix And Boil

Add your leaves to the pot along with the washing soda and enough water to completely cover the leaves. Bring everything to a boil and allow the mix to simmer for 90 minutes to two hours. Add water as necessary so that the leaves don't dry out. And be careful of the fumes coming off the pot!

Leaf skeleton
The intricate design of a leaf skeleton. (Photo: Johan Larson/Shutterstock)

3. Remove From the Water

After about two hours, carefully remove the leaves from the water using tongs or a spatula. Make sure your gloves or on from this point forward.

4. Brush Gently

Using tweezers to hold the stem and the soft paint brush or toothbrush, very gently brush away the pulpy part of the leaf. Flip the leaf over and repeat the brushing and pulp removal on the opposite side.

5. Rinse and Bleach

Tinted leaf skeleton
Add color to your leaf skeleton designs by soaking them in food color-tinted water instead of bleach. (Photo: Irina Burakova/Shutterstock)

Gently dip the leaf in water to rinse. If you want it to be really white, soak the leaf in bleach for 20 minutes.

6. Time to Dry

Dry the leaf skeletons between two napkins so that they lie flat.

7. Enjoy Your Creations

This video can walk you through the process even more. But be warned — there is a little bit of bleeped out salty language. Also, the method used in the video doesn't exactly work. But it's pretty fun to watch, and it gives you a good idea how much practice, patience, and persistence you might need to get the job done. Take a look: