Paper has many roles in everyday life, such as writing paper, packaging boxes and banknotes. Throughout history people have used paper to make a whole variety of products. The Economic Botany Collections at Kew house many examples of paper used to make less-than-ordinary objects, including hats, sandals, hair ornaments, umbrellas and even a waterproof raincoat.

Today most paper is made from wood pulp, but many plant fibres can be used instead. The Economic Botany Collections at Kew Gardens have a vast array of paper specimens and products illustrating the wide range of plants that have been used to make paper products. The Collections house over 350 paper specimens representing nearly 50 plant families and over 100 genera. The dominant families in the Collections are Moraceae, Gramineae, Thymelaeaceae, and Cyperaceae. Other families represented with fewer samples are the Juncaecae, Palmae, Pandanaceae, and Zingiberaceae families. Specimens include paper from banana and palm leaves, rice paper, papyrus, paper mulberry, and Mitsumata paper from Edgeworthia gardeneri.

The Collections represent a diverse range of paper specimens from all over the world, including part of the Sir Harry Parkes collection from Japan, and the Thomas Routledge collections gathered from Mexico, Australia, India, Trinidad and Tobago, the East Indies, and Sweden. From wasp's nests, illustrating the peculiar way insects can make paper, to recent acquisitions of paper made from Dombeye madagarscariensis from Madagascar, the specimens in the Economic Botany Collections attest to the diverse nature of plants and their products.

For further information on paper and paper making, please see “Papyrus, Paper and Paper Making” which is based on the Collections at Kew.

Peculiar Paper Fact

Japanese paper trees were a great luxury to the wild boar, so extra care was taken to protect the trees from the animals. Inhabitants of the northern provinces believed that if a wild boar was killed and buried in the neighbourhood of their paper trees, a second boar would never come near them again.

Parkes Collection

The largest family in the Collections, the Moraceae family, is mainly covered by the Sir Harry Parkes collection. Sir Harry was serving as British Minister in Tokyo when trade networks with Japan opened. In 1869, Prime Minister William Gladstone requested a report on the paper-making industry in Japan . Parkes sent this report, along with over 400 specimens of paper and paper products, to England in 1871 where it was divided between the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum . The Economic Botany Collections house the Gardens' share of this impressive collection.

Specimens included in the Parkes collection are dominated by paper made from the paper mulberry (Broussonetia), a type of paper first used in China for both ornamental and functional forms of paper, and later introduced to Japan in 610 AD. The Japanese perfected the method, using this paper for everything from seats and pocket books to delicate hair ornaments and oiled hats. Despite the large and diverse nature of the Parkes collection, it contains no examples of the main use for paper today - printing. Instead the objects attest to the truly versatile use of paper.

An Environmentally Friendly Kew

The objects housed in the Collections reveal a long-established interest in recycling, proving that environmental awareness and resource management are not just modern concerns. Bulk paper-making is a huge industry consuming whole forests of trees every year, so making old paper products new again is important. The Collections include paper samples made from waste material and sometimes mixed with a range of plants, including rags with fibre of banana, old netting with Mexican poppy, gunny bags made of jute, and the refuse of sugar beet and tea.


EBC 42847


  • Description: Toy boxes made of paper
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 42851


  • Description: Imitation crepe hair ornaments
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 42852


  • Description: Sun umbrella made of paper
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 42871


  • Description: Telescope
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 42899


  • Description: Hat made from paper
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 42921


  • Description: Paper fans
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 42924


  • Description: Waterproof coat made of paper
  • Donor: Sir Harry Parkes
  • Geographic Area: Japan
EBC 33725


  • Description: Painting on pith paper
  • Donor: T. Watters, HM Consul
  • Geographic Area: Taiwan