Olive and pecan leaves

Olea europaea et carrye illinoiensis, feuilles d’olivier et de pacanier, Oliven- und Pekannuss-blätter, hojas de olivo y nuez, duilleoga olóige agus pecan

When I see an abundance of flora yet not much evidence of its use as a dye plant, I wonder if it’s because people have tried in the past and found it fruitless. Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatum, is something that pops up in great numbers at this time of year, and after weighing up the urge to try it against the logic that if the ancient Greek sand Romans didn’t use it for colour, they’d probably tried it and rubbed it off the tablet, the urge was still there.

I got the palest yellow.

Then there is Yggdrasil, my pet name for the huge, spreading pecan tree nearby. Walnut leaves produce such a wealthy colour, so surely their cousin must. I was also hoping to find some nuts, but the local wildlife had already feasted, leaving just a few scalpings of fruit here and there. Fair enough. I took some leaves, which were moderate in size, then some from a sapling growing beside its parent in a drainage ditch. The leaves were much larger even though the ditch was dry. Perhaps because it had less chance of photosynthesizing? Anyway, there were enough that I could take some without doing damage to the sapling’s future.

The result was a range of strong browns and yellows that reminded me of a 1970’s dyebook. Any different to other yellows and browns? Different enough to record this as a local dye source.

Next came the olives. Apart from being an important crop here as in other parts of the world, they’re also a very common weed. Taking a few small branches home from the local national park was therefore a service. Again, not a lot of evidence that they’ve been used as a dye. Perhaps because they were too important for oil and fruit production while weld wasn’t?

The results were however amazing: Easter yellows to a bronzy-green! The latter I would usually describe as “olive”, but in the circumstances… I decided to repeat the experiment to see if the green was easily achievable and not just a fluke, and also to try out the copper modifier. Unfortunately, neither turned out anything to shout about… maybe not enough plant material? I’ll try again…

Pisolithus arhizus

Dyer’s puffball, Erbesensteinpilz

It’s not easy to find names of this one in other languages, and many of the common names are not very complimentary, referring to the appearance of the puffball when it opens and turns brown and scungy. Say no more. It appears to be rare in the British Isles, and to prefer southern Europe; with our Mediterranean climate here in South Australia it’s not difficult to find in autumn. I haven’t posted a picture as I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any unfortunate misidentification. I was always told that all fungi/toadstools are poisonous and to avoid them. Good, general safety advice for kids, but what about adventurous natural dyers? Some sources say it’s poisonous, others not, others that it “may be”. Well, I’m not going to eat it anyway, and handle it with care. Regarding the common names, ironic enough that I carried it home in a doggy bag (and not the sort you ask for in a restaurant).

I sliced a portion off one end and made several slits in it rather than cutting it into chunks. Why? To avoid any mess. The section was then simmered for about 40 minutes. The water didn’t take long to turn opaque dark brown. The chunk of fungus was then removed and the yarn dropped in. Half of the skeins immediately took on a dark brown, while the others remained pale. I didn’t bother fishing them out to find out, but just assumed that the mordanted ones were the darker.

About half-an-hour later (maybe less), the water had turned translucent dark yellow, and the skeins dark and light orange, a bit like a dahlia dyebath both before and after an alkaline mordant. This was going to be interesting…

As if those colours weren’t fascinating enough, when they came out of the dyepot there was further transformation. The non-modified skeins, when rinsed, turned shades of chestnut brown. Was this due to oxidisation?

Adding bicarb turned the next pair of skeins a deep plum brown, a colour I’ve never achieved before. Definitely one to repeat, and I’ll be scouring some more yarn later.

Vinegar turned the third pair two shades of honey brown. Like all the other skeins, the shades are deep and strong.

The iron modifier produced two shades of dark brown. And finally the copper modifier, which I’ve only just made and started using. Chestnut brown again, but brighter than the first pair.

I read that the dye is substantive, but using a mordant clearly deepened the colours. They aren’t quite as bright as this in real life, but I’m really not good at colour manipulation. Now, off to wind some more skeins for scouring…

Dried English walnut and fresh black walnuts

Juglans regia et Juglans nigra, getrocknete echte Walnüsse u. frische Schwarznüsse, nogales secos y nogales negros frescos, gallchnónna triomaithe is gallchnónna dubh úr

We came across a couple of nut trees whilst out walking doggie, and I (mis-)took them to be pecans. Why? We have not so far away a huge pecan that I had (mis-)taken for an ash. Confused? Well, I’d only ever seen one pecan tree, in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and hadn’t really retained an image of its leaves. The aforementioned pecan tree nearby is however a real specimen – tall and spreading and grand. Just like a large ash, but different. Back to the nut trees… looking at the fruits I’d managed to collect, they were clearly a different shape to pecans, and when I cut them open, that confirmed what they were. They were left in a bag for a few days and started to go mouldy, but were still full of potential. All three went into the dyepot at once and produced some beautiful, deep shades. One fruit would probably have been ample for the small amount of yarn, but it was only an experiment (this time). 

fresh J. nigra fruits

These colours reminded me of a previous experiment with J. regia leaves: rich browns and deeper shades on the unmordanted yarn.

dried J. regia fruits

The next dyepot involved some dried English walnuts that has fallen from the tree prematurely last summer, or maybe the summer before, or the one before that. Whichever, it was in much hotter weather. The fruits were still whole, but dried and had not grown to full size. Four or five of them were thrown in to soak for a few days, then boiled for a bit before the yarn was added to simmer (the colour of the liquour suggested it was ready).

A different range of shades, and different again to the earlier experiment with leaves. Worth repeating, but I’ll be wanting to try some fresh J. regia next year.

Yerba Mate

Ilex paraguariensis

My other half having used this in a soap recipe and commenting on the yellow it turned, I had to try it on wool. I have a fair stock as this is one of my favourite drinks, when I remember that maybe I shouldn’t drink so much coffee.

Unfortunately I have been unable to get a photo of the true shades. I’m not very savvy with image manipulation, granted.

I’ve tried to zap up the greens a bit, as in the original photo they appeared very yellow, but have gone a little overboard. Maybe an indication of what they become? Or refraction at its most mirage-inducing?

Second down on the right – mordanted + bicarb modifier: this actually came out a lighter moss-green (i.e. not so limey) with brownish tones. It’s counterpart on the left, unmodified, is a pale grey-green. Bottom-left, unmordanted and unmodified is just grey, although a grey that you don’t find naturally in fibre, and on the right, a more greenish grey. Worth repeating? Definitely, for the greens and greys if required in a project.

Cobra’s saffron

Mesua ferrea, bois de fer / nagas de Ceylan, Nagasbaum, palo de hierro

Another find in an Indian spice shop. This one looks like Szechuan pepper, but a saffron colour and not spiky. There just had to be some dye potential in this one…

When I first goolged the name, I didn’t come up with much info. A recent bit of research however revealed that it’s not only a culinary spice, but also an ingredient of nag champa incense. Nice.

It wasn’t long before the water in the dye pan had turned a golden yellow, so I expected to get yarn of a similar colour. The hue deepened as time progressed, and when the experiment was finished it showed more pinkish tones, mainly from non-mordanted, NM + vinegar modifier and mordanted + vinegar modifier. Acid to bring out the red (pink)?

A worthwhile experiment? Yep, as he colours are sufficiently different from other yellows. I now have to try some of the spice in cooking…

Borage flowers

Borago officinalis, fleurs de bourrache, Borretschblumen, flores de borraja, bláthanna borráiste gorm

And another Persian deli (while I was on my way to the Indian spice shop and the Indonesian supermarket), and I was glad to find one nearer to home, i.e. on the same side of the city. If you’re from elsewhere and are familiar with the dimensions of Adelaide, that last comment may raise a laugh, but it’s all relative. I once moved from a large apartment to a bedsit. Walking from one side to the other seemed to require the same effort, if not time.

So, the spice aisle, or rather wall. It wasn’t long before I’d come across a packet of borage flowers – a packet of blue. These were somewhat more expensive than the myrobalan, and the packet only contained 30g, but I just couldn’t resist. There’s at least half left over for their original purpose – herbal tea.

The colours aren’t so deep, but subtle and not ones you get from the majority of plants. They remind me of woad seeds (but paler), and of course there’s some resemblance to alkanet (same family). Try as I might, I couldn’t get a photo with their true shades, but this one is the closest. The Fe-modified skeins are pure grey in real life.


Terminalia chebula, myrobolan, Myrobalane, mirabolano

Every time I go to an ethnic deli, I spend some time walking back and forth along the spice aisle, picking up anything new and googling it. On a previous visit to a Persian supermarket (these are becoming more common in Adelaide these days), I spied a bag of, well, things, and looked them up by their botanical name… Myrobalan!

I remember reading about this in the dye books as a mordant. At only $3 for a 100g bag, this would be an affordable experiment. So I bought three bags.

Not being quite ready to use the fruits as a mordant for other dyes, I decided to try dyeing with them alone. One source stated that exposure to light increased the depth of colour. Interesting… Others said to use it as a mordant (at 40% WOF) on cellulose with aluminium acetate (isn’t the latter alone enough?), most talked about the powdered form. I had a bag of nuts. Should I put them in the coffee grinder (the old one reserved for dyestuffs)? In the end, I weighed out 100% WOF (this was only 25g) and tried to cut them in half with a strong pair of scissors. I’ll put them in whole next time.

The dye liquor was a deep yellow, so I knew I’d get some good colour out of it. When the skeins were dyed, dried and re-skeined, they reminded me very much of a previous experiment with pomegranate peel. The mordanted skeins (8%/7% alum/CoT) were paler than the unmordanted, except for the one modified by bicarb. Clearly an alkaline connection.

The Green Man

L’homme vert, der grüner Mann, el hombre verde, an fear glas

I came across this natural moss portrait along the Sturt River / Warriparri in Coro this week – the Green Man enjoying watching the world go by from the trunk of an ash tree on the bank of the creek. The child in me is always seeing faces and characters, human and otherwise, in tree trunks and rocks, and this was a wonderful encounter, especially at this time of year.

The ash (and willows, etc.) are non-native and considered weed species here, but I still love seeing them everywhere. The smell of the greenery and the water (when the creek hasn’t dried out for the summer) brings back memories of summer in England. There’s often a heron to be seen, as well as families of ducks and all sorts of plants. The local council has just extended the linear path even further and has provided picnic tables along the way. It’s a great place for walking doggy.

There’s some more info on the Green Man as well as an interesting poem about him on this website.

A tale of two chillies

Un conte de deux piments, eine Geschichte von zwei Chilis, Historia de dos ajís, Scéal faoi dhá chillí

Well, more like ten chillies. This season I’m growing: rocoto canario, pusa jwala, cayenne, bishop’s crown, lal mirch (generic Indian variety; cayenne?) and hari mirch (large green chillies that you can buy from the Indian etc. greengocers) from seed. With the canario, I already have two large bushes, but couldn’t resist the temptation to grow more from seed. The cayennes were grown from fruits that had been left on the bush too long last winter. They were supposed to be Joe’s long cayenne, but there’s nothing longer about them than regular cayennes. The hari mirch were grown from a purchase where among the green fruits I was choosing for stuffing, there was a redder, riper, wirnkled fruit that looked like it might yield something fertile. It did.

So how did they do? I took some of them to work in small punnets (which are now hard to come by, and expensive when you do) and grew them on a sunny windowsill. Even though the windows are tinted, the seedlings still got a fair amount of light and warmth. They did quite well, except for the pusa jwala. Only three out of ten or so sprouted and looked rather poorly. However, they have now recovered and look healthy, just a few weeks behind the others. Maybe they just needed more heat? The canario seedlings are unsuprisingly larger, and the bishop’s crowns look like they were meant to grow in our climate.

I also bought a plant each of padrón, pasilla bajio (chilaca), ají limon and poblano. Couldn’t resist. In for a penny, in for a pound. And in this part of the world at least, the Central and South American varieties don’t get much of a look-in. Having said that, I’m going to try the canarios in an Indian-style curry. Even though last season’s harvest wasn’t big, I still have a bag of them quartered and frozen. Have to try them stuffed next time.

Some of the seedlings with the papalo in the middle.

Do I have room for all those plants? Some have gone into the vegetable beds which next year will be reverted to garden (non-veggie) beds. We bought two raised beds and have finally filled them with soil and planted them up, but these are for the sweet corn, French beans, courgettes and cucumbers. Why raised beds? Our soil is nutrient-poor, sandy and often rocky. I remember a character in a French movie explaining that if you’ve got poor soil, adding things to it won’t make it good soil. That’s debatable and depends on so many variables, but when it comes to growing veggies, I’m trying the raised beds and growing more things in pots this season to see if they fare any better. I’m hoping to become self-sufficient in both chili powder (we’ll call the deviation in spelling “code switching” here) and frozen/dried, too. Having said that, I’ve just found a bag of frozen green ones (a self-sown variety, green, thin and “medium hot”) underneath the bag of frozen canario segments. No danger of running out of frozen ones for a while…

Talking of adding things to soil, about half of the chillies have distorted leaves. A little research suggested that they may need calcium, so they all had a sprinkling of gypsum. It may be insects sucking on the new leaves, but the gypsum shouldn’t do any harm. Even the worst looking ones have buds, so I’ll leave them in.

Anything to go with the chillies? Yep – tomatillos and papalo. Actually the latter is Porophyllum ruderale / quillquiña, but more or less the same as papalo except for the leaf size. This produced seeds in abundance a couple of years ago, but didn’t self-seed. However, the ones I saved had a good germination rate.

re tomatillos: one source stated they should be surface-sown. I tried this and also sowing them with a light (but not sparse) covering. It made no difference to the success rate, which was good. Let’s see how they do in the garden.