Jessica Shepherd, CS 433, Spring 1997

L-systems, introduced by A. Lindenmayer in 1968, produce character strings that are graphically interpreted. They are been especially useful in modelling plants and basic fractal curves. This page explains the basics behind L-systems through simple Java applets.

The Most Basic Basics:

Some info on strings

Let's start out with the alphabet. Associated with an L-system is an alphabet of letters with meaning. Most L-systems have the basic letters in common. For example, the letter "F" means "go forward one unit and draw a line." If you are familiar with LOGO, L-systems use a turtle interpretation system similar to that of LOGO-writer.

Turtle Interpretation

Picture a turle sitting in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen facing the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. You give the turtle a set of commands, for example, "turn right", "go forward", "turn left". The turtle moves across the screen following your commands. This is what's going on in an L-system. Each letter of the alphabet is a different command to the turtle.

The following applet illustrates this idea. Press a button to give the turtle a new command. The string generated by these commands is printed in the text area at the base of the applet.

You aren't using a Java-compatible browser. If you had been, you would have seen an applet here.

Note the automatic scaling applied to lines in the above applet. This becomes important when strings grow especially long.

Basic L-system Basics:

Simple Structure

Every L-system needs two things: and axiom and a set of production rules. The axiom is the initial string. It tells the system where to start. In the simplest case, the production rules are functions that send letters to different strings.

Simple Example

As an example, the following is an L-system:
axiom: F
production rules: F->F-F++F

The system starts out with the string "F". During the first iteration, the production rules are applied. In this case, the rules say to replace every instance of "F" in the given string with the string "F-F++F". Hence after one iteration we have:


During the second iteration, instances of "F" are again replaced by the string "F-F++F" to produce the string:

And so on. After a sufficient number of iterations (specified by the user), string production stops and the final string is drawn into the window. Try typing the above string into the applet above to see what resulting image appears.

Another Example

Axioms and replacement strings do not only have to consist of strings with the the letters in the above applet. You can also include other variables. These are interpreted by the turtle as "stay in the same place facing the same direction." However, during iterations they can be useful tools for inserting more complexity into the string.

Consider the following system:

axiom: FXF--FF--FF
production rules: F->FF
If the axiom is drawn, the turtle ignores the letter "X" and follows the commands specified by the other letters to create a triangle. During the next iteration, however, the "X" is replaced by the string "--FXF++FXF++FXF--". Again the turtle draws this as a triangle. However, now we have a triangle within our initial triangle!

Your Turn

Below is an applet that allows you to design your own simple L-systems using techniques described above. You are allowed to add, delete, and modify production rules and the axiom. Also, you determine the number of iterations through which the string will be sent ("number of cycles") and the angle the turtle rotates when you tell it to turn right or left ("rotation angle"). If you don't know where to begin, also included are a number of examples. Try decreasing and increasing the number of cycles per example to watch the image build itself up.

You aren't using a Java-compatible browser. If you had been, you would have seen an applet here.

For More Information:

A more comprehensive example of L-systems, including some features not implemented in this system, can be found here.

Future Plans:

Jessica Shepherd (jshepher@cs.utah.edu)
Sep 24, 1997