Algorithmic Botany

[A tree on a sidewalk whose root system has grown above ground and within the square parameters of the plot, almost giving it the appearance of a circuit board.]

This piece was originally published in the 2024 Annual.

Take out a pen and some paper, or open a drawing program on your computer. Draw a line. At the end of that line, draw two shorter lines poking outward. At the ends of those two lines, draw two more lines in that vein. Continue this process until you’ve drawn a tree.

Drawing a Tree by Bruno Munari. [An open book page with two blocks of text and a sequence of tree images, from very small seedling to grown tree.]

Turn that drawing around and you’ll end up with a root system rather than a tree. Or perhaps your sketch grows more sideways. Sure, it could be a vine growing across a wall, but maybe at this point things start to look less like a plant and more like a diagram. By just adding a few labels, you could make your sketch into a decision tree representing the overwhelming number of life paths you didn’t choose, which landed you where you are today. Or perhaps those branches are the combinatorial explosion of possibilities that your future holds.

Image by Tim Urban. [Two decision trees representing the past and the future.]

With just a few labels, a pinch of anthropomorphization, our drawing takes on new meaning. But not all human projections onto nature are so fruitful. We also project a sanitized sexuality onto flowers. Edible plants become monocrops who live solely to serve humans, and majestic trees are commodified as carbon dioxide processors. We (now often ironically) slap the golden ratio over pictures of life where it adds little to no deepened understanding, as if its “fit” serves as evidence for some unspecified math-y-ness.

Golden ratio meme posted by u/SpringKitsune to the subreddit r/ShitPostCrusaders. [A photo of a dog shitting, with the golden ratio overlaid.]

In some ways, the Algorithmic Botany course that I teach at the School for Poetic Computation is an attempt to refind the rush I felt when I first learned about the golden ratio. What a wonderful idea that there’s some number that unites all the things we find beautiful. But perhaps this idea becomes dogmatic. Perhaps it implies some supremacy of the mathematic and, by extension, the human.

Algorithmic botany, a field pertaining to the modeling, simulation, and visualization of plant life, was pioneered by the Biological Modeling and Visualization research group at the University of Calgary. My approach to both researching and teaching this material was initially fueled by a certain desire to emulate nature in my own generative art. I wanted to harness the power of growth patterns to make natural-seeming art, which would sort of dampen the techy-ness of making art with a computer. Even just the phrase “algorithmic botany” feels rich with tension and contradiction.

But early on in my exploration into algorithmic botany, I made a subtle shift in mindset. While I was using nature-inspired algorithms to mask the trace of the computer in my art, I began to see the marks of human authorship in gardens, farms, and even in forests, managed with controlled burns. As William Cronon observed in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, “Work that has changed nature has simultaneously produced much of our knowledge of nature.”

In her essay “Tree Thinking,” Shannon Mattern demonstrates how knowledge production has been tied up with nature, trees specifically, throughout human history. She looks at everything from religious concepts like the Judeo-Christian Tree of Knowledge and the Buddhist Tree of Awakening, to the depiction of family trees, to data structures like binary trees and random forests—even to paper. Broadening out from the tree, we humans have been projecting our hopes and dreams onto our plant companions for as long as we’ve been able to.

Diderot and d’Alembert use a tree to map out the entirety of human knowledge. [A drawing of what looks like a giant succulent with a ton of broad, flat, oval leaves with text written inside of them.]

In this context, writing code to draw plants feels like just another step in a long lineage of trying to capture the beauty of nature in our art. In some ways, by using code to express our artistic observations on plant life, we are able to distill the qualities of plant-ness with a clarity unique to this medium. With algorithmic botany, by writing code—instructions—for a tree or flower or fungal growth to become, we are constructing a mythology, pondering plants’ consciousness, trying to embody their intelligence. It’s like imitating an animal in song and dance.

I use the phrase mythology because at the end of the day I don’t think the goal of writing these plant-drawing programs is to mimic reality. While there is an instinct to leverage the capabilities of the most powerful hardware and most advanced software to make something as indistinguishable from nature as possible, I think such attempts miss the point.

As John Berger writes in “The White Bird,”

The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that appeals only in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature.

Or, as Byung-Chul Han says of Chinese art,

Chinese art has a functional relationship with nature, not a mimetic one. It is not a question of depicting nature as realistically as possible but of operating exactly like nature.

To me, an artistically inspired interpretation of algorithmic botany embodies the ideas of function, creation, and interaction in nature rather than its appearance. As such, the algorithms we use in my class are not necessarily the most capable in rendering images of plants. What they are good at, however, is connecting some foundational ideas of computer programming to some pondering about how plants and fungi arrange their component parts.

This sets the stage for students to easily introduce other concepts for visually expressing their own relationship with plants and nature. To one student, that may mean growing a poem in a phyllotactic spiral. To another, maybe that means a tree dances and folds in on itself. In one particularly inspiring student response, an L-System (tree-drawing) sketch was pushed to resemble a celestial body more than a tree.

A custom L-System implementation from the School for Poetic Computations's 2023 Algorithmic Botany session. By Jenna Murphy @velvetblackpixel. [A dark blue background with a constellation of delicate dots that cluster and spread. It almost looks like the lights on earth from space, or perhaps a mycelium network.]

Sean Catangui is a graphics editor at the New York Times, a lecturer at the New School, and a School for Poetic Computation teacher and alum. He combines code, design, and art direction in service of visual storytelling. Sean also helps run the Chinatown Basketball Club in New York City.