Long leaves in terrestrial plants and their submarine counterparts, algal blades, have a typical, saddle-like midsurface and rippled edges. To understand the origin of these morphologies, we dissect leaves and differentially stretch foam ribbons to show that these shapes arise from a simple cause, the elastic relaxation via bending that follows either differential growth (in leaves) or differential stretching past the yield point (in ribbons). We quantify these different modalities in terms of a mathematical model for the shape of an initially flat elastic sheet with lateral gradients in longitudinal growth. By using a combination of scaling concepts, stability analysis, and numerical simulations, we map out the shape space for these growing ribbons and find that as the relative growth strain is increased, a long flat lamina deforms to a saddle shape and/or develops undulations that may lead to strongly localized ripples as the growth strain is localized to the edge of the leaf. Our theory delineates the geometric and growth control parameters that determine the shape space of finite laminae and thus allows for a comparative study of elongated leaf morphology.
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