Intro to L-Systems

L-systems are a type of formal language. Introduced by Aristid Lindenmayer in 1968 to study the development of simple organisms, they evolved over time to model larger structures.

The concept centres on rewriting, where complex objects or shapes are described as an evolution of something simpler. Typically this approach requires two elements:

Productions are sometimes referred to as rewriting rules, as they literally define how the initial shape is rewritten over time.

The Snowflake Curve

One of the most well-known examples of a shape made using rewriting rules is the Koch Construction, or snowflake curve. Proposed by Helge von Koch in 1905, the initiator is evolved by recursively replacing each straight line with a second shape, known as a generator. Similar to the use of productions, the original shape is effectively rewritten with increasing complexity. However, unlike l-systems the the generator must implicitly be arranged (i.e., rotated and resized) so that its end points match those of the straight line it is replacing.

Basic evolution of the Snowflake curve

String Rewriting

Both the initiator and productions are represented as simple strings1, where each character represents a specific drawing command. As such, each evolution of a shape - including the initiator - is literally defined by instructions describing how to draw it.

Productions are written in the form a -> X, meaning the sequence X should replace every instance of the command a, where a is a single2 drawing command. When evolving a shape each production is applied in parallel3. For example, starting with the initiator b and the productions

the following evolution would take place:



The drawing instructions used by the l-system grammar as described are for a turtle graphics system. A turtle object is given a state consisting of:

After being initialised with a position and direction the turtle can be instructed to move around a canvas either marking the ‘page’ as it goes, or leaving it blank.


The following commands can be used to ‘instruct’ a turtle, forming the vocabulary of l-systems4.

Evolving Shapes

To evolve a shape, simply apply the productions. For example, beginning with the initiator F-F-F-F and the production rule F -> F-F+F+FF-F-F+F we get the following evolution:




Assuming an angle increment of 90 (i.e., a = 90), this evolution describes the following series of shapes:

Sample evolution


L-systems can be used to easily create plants of various sizes. For example, the following plant shapes can be evolved using only a single production rule each:

d = 5
a = 30
initiator = F
productions = F -> F[+F]F[-F][F]

Simple plant evolution

d = 5
a = 25
initiator = F
productions = F -> F[+F]F[-F]F

Simple plant evolution

The code used to create these images can be found on GitHub and Bitbucket.


  1. There are of course other representations, but strings are easy to implement and conceptualise.

  2. Pseudo l-systems allow multiple drawing commands to form a production predecessor.

  3. As opposed to in sequence, which can result in infinite loops.

  4. Technically the ‘push’ and ‘pop’ commands are from an extension referred to as branching l-systems.