Surprise! The rectangles of translucent white paper frequently used in origami, calligraphy, painting and other handicrafts and sold in art material stores under the name “rice paper” are not made of rice at all, but are rather derived from one of two shrubs.
How did that happen?
The Rice Paper Plant
Yes, there is a plant known as the rice paper plant. Its botanical name is Tetrapanax papyrifer and it’s a tall, unbranching shrub or small tree. It certainly looks nothing like true rice (Oryza sativa), which is a grass. How then did it get its name?
What happened is that, in the late 19th and early 20th century, paintings began arriving in Europe from China that were painted on an unknown paper. They quickly became very popular as home decorations. Knowing nothing about the paper other than that it came from China, where rice is the main cereral grain, Europeans assumed that it was made from rice and began calling it rice paper.
By the time the actual origin of the plant became known, it was too late to change common usage and its paper is still called rice paper to this day, although specialists distinguish it from other rice papers by calling it pith paper, since it is made from the pith found inside the branches of the plant.
The rice paper plant is a very striking plant because of its huge palmately-lobed leaves that measure from 1 to 2 feet in diameter (up to 3 feet in the case of the cultivar ‘Steroidal Giant’!). The leaves vaguely recall those of a close relative, the schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla) and indeed both belong to the Araliaceae or aralia family, but are even more like those of the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis), which is in no way related and belongs to an entirely different family, the Euphorbiaceae.
The rice paper plant can be grown as a houseplant if you have plenty of space (it can easily reach 20 feet/7 m in height and 6 feet/2 m in diameter!) and excellent atmospheric humidity. Because of its size, though, you’re more likely to see it in the greenhouses of botanical gardens than in private homes. At least, you’ll see it in greenhouses in cold climates. In warmer ones, it doesn’t need a greenhouse and can be seen outdoors.
In zones 9 to 11, as well as in warmer parts of zone 8, it is fully hardy and can be grown as an outdoor shrub. In such a climate, its leaves will be evergreen and it blooms readily, producing terminal clusters of fuzzy white flowers. In the colder parts of zone 8, although its stems survive the winter, it will lose its leaves, with new ones appearing in spring. In zones 6 and 7, it act as a die-back shrub or, if you prefer, a giant perennial, losing both stems and leaves to the cold, but sprouting anew each spring from its roots. It won’t bloom under such conditions though.
If the appearance and history of this plant attracts you and you’d like to try growing it, be forewarned that it’s quite a thug, producing long vagabond rhizomes that often pop up far from the mother plant. Also the reddish hairs that cover the stems and the new leaves cause considerable irritation if inhaled or even just handled. That’s why people who grow it usually wait until the end of winter to do any pruning: by then. the hairs will have worn off.
The rice paper plant will grow under almost any conditions, but prefers sun to partial shade and well-drained soils.
The Other Rice Paper Plant
But the story doesn’t end there, because there is another shrub or small tree that also produces so-called rice paper: Broussonetia papyrifera! It’s most often called paper mulberry and indeed, it is from the mulberry family (Moraceae).
The history of this kind of rice paper is somewhat different. It first began arriving in the Occident as bagging material for rice, so the name “rice paper” essentially means “the paper used to package rice”. The fiber is derived from the bark of the tree only after a long and laborious process. Even so, this plant has been used to make paper and cloth for over 2,000 years, meaning it is considered the very first source of true paper. Today it is a popular craft paper and is also used to make parasols and lamp shades.
Paper mulberry is deciduous with highly variable foliage. The leaves can be entire and heart-shaped or bear one to many lobes. Often you’ll see different leaf shapes on the same branch.
Despite from its curious leaves, paper mulberry is not considered all that attractive and therefore is not often used as an ornamental, although there cultivars with lime-yellow foliage (‘Golden Shadow’) and deeply cut leaves (‘Laciniata) that might be worth looking into. Hardy from zones 6 or 7 to 11, it is even more invasive than the rice paper plant and is banned as an invasive species in several countries. In the United States, it is considered a weed and has escaped from culture throughout the Southeast and even as far North as New York City. Also, male plants produce a pollen that can cause serious allergies.
As interesting as the paper mulberry may be, it’s definitely a “think twice” plant, probably one you’d do best to avoid planting.
Real Rice Paper
Finally, there really is rice paper made of rice: actually, rice starch and tapioca. To distinguish it from the other rice papers, it’s often called edible rice paper or rice paper wrap. It’s also sold under its Vietnamese name, bánh tráng. You won’t have to go to the arts and crafts store to find this one: your local supermarket probably carries it, as it is widely used in making spring and summer rolls.
However, if you really want to taste true rice paper, I do recommend you read the label of your rice paper wrap carefully, because more and more often it is now made not from rice but from… potatoes!
So much confusion about a name… but at the least you know now the story behind the confusion!