Madder’s Family

Madder has several relatives that are also rich in useful reds. These plants are native here in Denmark, and have been used as red dyes a very long time back.

Believe it or not, the year is drawing to a close. So, I want to try to summarize all the many dyeing experiments I did over the year.

This summer, I searched for madder’s relatives, to find as many as possible. Madder, Rubia tinctoria, belongs to the madder family (Rubiaceae) in which you also find the bedstraws (the genus Galium).

Galium species do not contain as large amounts of red dye as cultivated madder does, but several of the species grow wild here in Denmark, and their historical use is well known.

Madder plant growing in my dye garden.

The first Galium species to present itself was cleavers (Galium aparine). It’s everywhere! Anybody who has ever walked outside surely know this plant. Or at least its seeds. They are extremely good at clinging to clothing and dog fur. The whole plant is covered with clingy hooks – the very same that cultivated madder has.

My attempt to dig up cleaver roots quickly came to an end. The roots have the thickness of sewing thread, so a lot of digging is required. But the roots are said to contain dye, so I’m keeping them on my list of maybes.

Cleavers up close. You can see the characteristic clingy hooks on the seeds. The very same that madder is covered with.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is the plant mentioned by most natural dyeing books. I tried growing it in the garden this year, seeding it outside in the spring, but nothing grew.

Whenever you’re looking for a specific plant or mushroom, but haven’t found it yet, it’s simply invisible. But, once you find it, you start seeing it everywhere. The relationship between Lady’s bedstraw and myself developed exactly like that over the summer. Once I found it, it was everywhere! For example this coastal grassland:

Coastal grasslands with very sandy and infertile soil, perfect for Lady’s bedstraw. I took this picture in a region of Denmark called Mols.

 

Lady’s bedstraw truly thrives in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, along with yarrow and St. John’s wort.

Lady’s bedstraw growing in a big cluster.

Unfortunately, several walks with a shovel only yielded a very small handful of Lady’s bedstraw roots – so little that my scale didn’t register. Like with cleavers, the roots are extremely fine, and they tangle up with roots of grass etc. In combination with stony, sandy soil, the digging job gets hard. To get your hands on a larger pile of these roots, I suspect you have to grow them in a well-prepared sandy soil without obstacles. Anyway, I tried dyeing with my small handful of roots, but it gave almost no color.

But then, on a forest walk, this plant turned up – hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo):

Flowering hedge bedstraw photographed in July.

Hedge bedstraw is also mentioned by different books as a dye plant, so I brought out the shovel once more. Again, it was difficult. The forest soil is obviously full of tree roots that make digging quite impossible. But I managed to get a couple of handfuls of roots, mainly because hedge bedstraw roots are not that thin. I dug up the roots on July 9th. The next day, after cleaning, the slightly dried roots weighed 30 g.

My pile of hedge bedstraw roots, with reds clearly showing under the out bark.

I soaked the roots in cold water overnight, then dyed my usual alum mordanted 12-gram skeins of Fernris to test the dye. I removed the overnight water because Jenny Dean does, but I should have concluded from my madder experiments that it is not necessary to do so. The water used to soak the roots overnight simply contains a small amount of dye, with the same properties as the dye you extract when you heat the roots in water (the small 6-gram skein laying across the others in the picture below was dyed with the discarded water).

Then, I dyed alum mordanted 12-gram skeins in a 1st and 2nd dyebath, in exactly the same way as if it had been madder: heating up to 60 degrees C, then leaving the yarn in the dyebath until the next day. The first bath gave a convincing red-orange, which would not have been a surprise had it been madder I was dyeing with. The dye is less abundant in hedge bedstraw than in madder, but the difference is actually smaller than anticipated. Here, I used 30 g of roots on 12 g of yarn, with madder, you would get this shade with less than 100% weight of fiber.

After the second bath, which also worked well, I was evidently feeling on top of things, and threw in a 50 g skein. There was not much dye left, but to extract everything that was there, I left the bath with yarn in a jar outside. That was in mid-July.

A couple of times, I heated the entire jar over a water bath to give the process a helping hand, but the rest of the time, it was just standing there. I turned over the yarn to get an even dye, and for a while, it also fermented. Both time and fermentation should help release the dye. Also, I imagine that a skein of yarn in the bath will soak up the dye as it is released, permitting more to come out (alizarin has a rather low solubility in water). In any case, my large skein stayed in the jar for 6 weeks, and turned out a pleasing coral color. And, the dye bath ran clear, so there was probably nothing left in the roots.

Dyeing with roots of hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). 1st bath (left), 2nd bath (middle), and the large skein on the right is fermentation of the 3rd bath. The small skein across was dyed in the water used to soak the roots overnight.

Læs dette indlæg på dansk

Germination Test

I harvested seeds from my dye plants last year, for the first time. So instead of just counting on the seeds, I decided to test their germination before spring truly arrives.

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Last year, I harvested seeds of dyer’s coreopsis and woad from the garden, not a big surprise there. Coreopsis is an annual, and will make huge numbers of small seeds. My woad plants were in their second year, so their seeds were also expected.

The surprise was my Japanese indigo. When I harvested my last plants on October 24th last year, several plants were flowering. On a whim, I potted a plant that I had just ripped out of the soil with roots, and brought the pot inside. There, it calmly kept growing, actually until we went to London for Christmas – the plant had died when we came home. When I was going to throw it, I noticed the seed, good numbers, actually. But it did spend the summer outside with the bees.

Japanese indigo seeds.

I tested the germination of all my dye seeds by placing 10 seeds in moist kitchen paper towel in a ziplock bag that I put under the microwave oven where it’s warm and dark. From January 31st, I let the seeds germinate for a week, and got this result:

Coreopsis, harvested September 27th – 5 out of 10.

Coreopsis, harvested October 24th – 6 out of 10.

Woad – 5 out of 10.

Japanese indigo – 9 out of 10.

Not bad! That was on February 7th, so I decided that this was still too early for the coreopsis. Also, I just sewed it directly last year. So I tossed the sprouted coreopsis for now.

The sprouted woad and japanese indigo, on the other hand, went into seed-starting pots where they now grow. Last year, I found that I was too late in the season, and that was with germination beginning on  April 16th. My notes are sporadic, but it seems they grew in the seed-starting pots for about a month, and in larger pots outside for another month before I transferred them to the garden. So that would have been mid-June.

Various sources disagree on when to start seeds indoors, maybe because they are written for different climates? Recommendations range from early May, 2-3 weeks before the last frost to 6-8 weeks before the last frost.

According to (the authoritative?) “Handbook of Natural Colorants” chapter 7, “Indigo – Agricultural Aspects”, Japanese indigo should germinate inside in April and be transferred to open land in June – and that just happens to be what I did last year (although I hadn’t read that chapter yet). The book goes on to conclude that Japanese is a good crop for Central Europe, but not for England and Finland because the growing season is too short.

I imagine that it’s possible to beat the short season by transferring well grown plants, and doing it earlier than June. So that’s why my sprouted indigo is allowed to continue growing indoors, and more seeds are germinating. Even though this is what it looks like outside:

The frozen wasteland…

Harvest

I’ve finally finished harvesting my dye plants and seeds, and it has been an abundant year in the dye garden. In addition to woad seeds, I’ve also harvested seeds of dyer’s coreopsis. I harvested some of them on September 27th, and a lot more when I removed the last plants on October 24th. I don’t know when they should be harvested, but I suppose I’ll see if any of them sprout next year.

coreopsisseeds
Seeds of Dyer’s Coreopsis. Lots of them, and they are tiny.

Then there’s my Japanese indigo, which  grew really well this year. I harvested most of my Japanese indigo, 22 plants, on September 27th. I tried two different ways of drying the leaves.

First, I stripped the leaves off the stems, spread them out outside on a sunny day. They almost dried, and I moved them inside in a mesh hanger before dewfall that evening. In a couple of days, they were completely dry.

dryjapaneseindigo
Drying Japanese indigo bunches. Only the outer leaves dry this way!

Second method (because stripping the leaves off was so time-consuming) was borrowed from Deb McClintock – I hung bunches of leafy stalks to dry inside because by then, the season had changed and the first fall storms and rains were here. But after a week, only the tips of the leaves had dried, because the thick stalks retain all the moisture. I’m sure that would not be a problem under a hot Texas sun, but this isn’t exactly Texas! In the end, I stripped the leaves off the the half-dried stalks and let them dry. So although option two seemed easier, it’s not really an option here – next time, I’ll know there’s no way around a bit of tedious work.

I ended up with a bit more than 400 g of dry leaves, and they are showing a blue tinge. Definitely a good sign.

indigoleaves
My dry Japanese indigo leaves with a blue tinge.

The rest of my Japanese indigo, maybe 8 plants, stayed in the garden. In late September, the plants had quite a few buds, and I wanted to leave some to see if they would flower and maybe even produce seeds. I followed the weather forecast closely to see when the first night frost would come. That was forecast for the evening of October 24th, so I went to our garden that afternoon to harvest the last plants. And they did flower – but no seeds.

indigoflower
Japanese indigo flowering in late October.

The last crop was used for a bit of experimentation, trying to extract indigo from the fresh leaves of Japanese indigo using the instructions from Wild Colours. I stripped the leaves off the stems, washed them briefly, packed them in a pot and filled it with rainwater.

I then left it on my hot plate on low heat, switched on for 15 minutes every 2. hour. This kept the temperature around 35 – 45C, and I left it for 36 hours.

Then, I added sodium carbonate to raise the pH to about 9, and started pouring the liquid back and forth between two buckets. The reddish brown foam is supposed to turn blue (because pouring oxidizes the precursor indican to indigo) but nothing happened. Nothing. The next day, I took out a small part of the liquid, added some sodium dithionite, and tried dipping a scrap of yarn. Again, nothing. So in the end, I tossed the entire experiment. I think the reason for this failure was the very late harvest of my last Japanese indigo. So I haven’t tried my dried leaves yet, but I hope they contain some indigo! I’ll return to the extraction method next year with plants harvested earlier in the season.

My Dye Garden

Summer is leaving us, and I feel like summing up my gardening for the year. I had 2. year woad plants, and just a few plants gave me a big pile of seeds. That’s despite the fact that I moved those plants last fall. This is just some of the seeds.

woadseeds2
Lots of woad seeds.

I also grew dyer’s coreopsis, which gave me these lovely orange shades a couple of years ago.

coreopsiswool
Coreopsis orange on wool.

But dyer’s coreopsis is also a pretty bicolor summer flower, and much visited by pollinators:

skonhedsoje16
Coreopsis blooms in red and yellow.

Unfortunately, I was a bit late in harvesting my coreopsis, so I just took a few stalks of the freshest flowers. I left the rest for now, to see if I can get seeds out of them. It make take a while longer, judging from a comparison between my flowers and this excellent overview.

This year, I’m attempting to grow weld for the first time. I expected tall flowers to attract loads of butterflies, but the plants only produced these leaf rosettes. Looks like the stalks will come next year.

vau16
First-year weld rosettes. Can you tell that I weeded around them just before taking the picture?

I’ve also started growing madder for the first time, and my plants are rather scrawny. I hope they’ll do better next year, if they survive winter, that is.

krapplanter16
Madder, not doing that well…

My Japanese indigo, on the other hand, is really having a good time. This year, I’m planning to dry the leaves and try this method.

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Japanese indigo, doing really well!

Thinking about Woad

Woad is flowering right now, in lovely yellow abundance, and I’m hoping for a good seed harvest.

blomstrendevajd

Seeing the abundance of flowers made me want to knit with my woad dyed yarn from last year, and so, it’s become part of a whole obsessive-compulsive series of hats that I’m knitting these days, following Olga Buraya-Kefelian’s Hado pattern. So far, I’m knitting the third one, of course with a lot of mods although the pattern is a good one, and simple, too. The hat below has stripes of woad and poisonous orange mushrooms from last fall.

hado1

The Dye Plants are Sown

Today, I’ve sown some of my dye plant seeds in small pots indoors. The night frost has almost gone, you see…

Last year, I had luck growing Japanese indigo and woad from seeds that I cultivated indoors before planting outside, so I’ll do the same again with Japanese indigo this year. I’m skipping woad because Japanese indigo has a much higher dye content. Also, I have some woad plants growing from last year, so they might flower and produce seeds.

I’m also sowing seeds of weld and madder, and that’s the first time I try those. Weld seeds look like poppy seeds, but the plant is related to cabbage and mustard. It is said to have exceptionally fragrant flowers the second year, so I hope it’ll survive that long!

seeds_txt

Madder seeds are a bit special, angular and sticky

madderseeds

Now, all the seeds are in their little pots. Madder seeds just under the surface, weld and Japanese indigo seeds just on the surface.

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Walks in March

The weather here in Denmark has been all that bad in March. I suppose you’re supposed to make some comment along the lines of “in like a lion, out like a lamb”, but really, good and bad weather just depends on expectations. I’ve been sitting outside in the sun a couple of times already, knitting. And we’ve been on several good walks. There isn’t much new growing yet, so the most interesting living things right now are mushrooms and lichens growing on trees.

This is Evernia prunastri spreading over a tree trunk. I didn’t gather any of it this time, but I have dyed with it before. You have to use the ammonia method on this lichen, in which case it yields nice tones of pink.

everniaprunastri

We also walked to the edge of Gudenaa, the largest stream in Denmark (I wonder if you could even call it a small river?). Early in March, it had flooded quite a large area, but that is already coming down now.

gudenaa

We have borrowed a piece of garden not far from there, and I managed to plant the first seeds on February 28th, dyer’s greenweed. Before that, I kept the seeds in the freezer for two weeks because they need cold stratification to break dormancy. I didn’t try the freezer last year, and none of them sprouted last year. So I hope it works this time.

We also found ourselves walking in the forest, which was full of interesting things despite the time of year.

Here, a lot of cones that have been picked apart. We found them in a big pile under a tree. It’s the work of a squirrel, its signature being that there are still some bits of material sticking out from the cone’s stem. If a mouse had eaten these cones, it would have cleaned everything off.

egernkogler

We also found jelly ear / wood ear (Auricularia auricula-judae). It is edible, but they were a bit slimy, so we just left them.

judasøre

A perfect leaf skeleton (found by my daughter)

blad

And this log, patterned by the paths eaten by worms when it had bark. I wish I could knit this pattern…

træstamme

Finally, I found a lot of rusty gilled polypore, Gloeophyllum sepiarium, which grows on dead coniferous tree, it even grows well on treated logs, like these ones:

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These polypores are old, there’s actually lichens growing on them

fyrrekorkhat3

And here it’s growing in neat lines, guided by the cracks in the tree

fyrrekorkhat4

This is what the mushroom looks like seen from the bottom. It looks like gills, but this mushroom is a polypore with quite oblong pores.

fyrrekorkhat2

Rusty gilled polypore is supposed to contain a quite good brown dye, so I harvested a nice pile of them. More to come on that!

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Blue Harvest

This summer, I grew Japanese indigo

japaneseindigoplantsand woad

woadplants

in the garden for the first time. I harvested all of my plants on September 28th (already a long time ago, lots of stuff has been going on here) except the woad plants I left to let them grow a second year in an attempt to get seeds.

After harvest, I had 465 g of Japanese indigo leaves stripped off the stems and 433 g of woad leaves. I’m pleased with this harvest, which came from two rather small patches of land with maybe 12 Japanese indigo plants and a similar number of woad plants.

Following the instructions from “A Dyer’s Garden” by Rita Buchanan, I poured just-boiled water on the woad leaves (it smelled a bit radish-like) and hot (was 44C) tap water on the indigo leaves, then heated them slowly on a double boiler to 71C. It smelled a bit minty almost.

At that point, you strain the leaves out of the dye bath and add base. I used what I happened to have around the house, which was sodium carbonate (it seems that the actual base used doesn’t matter, all that matters is that you must raise the pH). I added 2 spoonfuls to each dye pot.

Then comes the magic! By pouring the dye bath several times from one container to another, you introduce oxygen, which oxidizes the precursor indican into the blue form of the indigo molecule. During this step, my woad dye bath changed from reddish brown to dark green and developed a blue-green foam, and the Japanese indigo bath changed to a classical indigo blue with this lovely blue foam on top:

oxidizedindigo

After oxidation, I added one spoonful of sodium dithionite (reducing agent) to each dye bath and let them stand undisturbed until they presented the yellow-green tinge that they should, which took about half an hour. Then it was time to dye! I left my yarn in the dye bath for about 2o minutes.

As expected, there was much less color in the woad bath, which I only used for one 100 g skein. The Japanese indigo bath dyed 3 100 g skeins, and the last one was as intensely colored as the woad skein.

I then tried the used leaves of both the woad and Japanese indigo on 10-g test skeins of alum mordanted wool, using a standard dyeing method (so just keeping it hot but not boiling for an hour). And here they all are:

indigowool

Bottom – yellow/green skein is Japanese indigo leaves on alum mordanted wool, the tan/beige one above is woad leaves on alum mordanted wool. Then the 3 skeins dyed with Japanese indigo, the first and darkest one is the lower one. Finally on top, the skein dyed with woad, maybe you can see its slightly green tinge mixed into the blue.

Seeing these colors that I not only just dyed, but also grew in my garden, I feel such a sense of accomplishment!!! And I have a renewed respect for blue. Imagine the trouble people went through in the past to get this color.

Conclusion: I will be growing Japanese indigo again next year for sure. I’m not sure about woad, since the dye content is a lot smaller.

Summer Days Dyeing

Summer finally came roaring with several days of temperatures around 30C (yea, hot for Denmark!). We’ve been outside almost all the time, except the times I’ve had to go into the house and check my dye pot on the stove.

Our garden is wonderful right now, the highlights are Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)

sweetwilliam

flowering thyme with bumblebees

thyme

and elder at its midsummer best – so fragrant

elder

But I also have some potential dyes growing! Here is pot marigold which is growing everywhere in our garden because of extremely efficient self-seeding. It should give a nice yellow at some point

potmarigold

And then there is this. My woad plants. Previous attempts I’ve made were completely unsuccessful, so I’m very pleased that they are growing at all

woad

And finally, Japanese Indigo. I had to put them in a plot of hard and dry soil because we ran out of good spots, so I don’t know how they will grow. I’ve never grown them before!

japaneseindigo

But instead of just waiting around for these plants to grow, I’ve been on several good walks to gather dyestuffs.

On the very last day of June, my daughter and I ventured out to gather some of the bounty of wild growing lupines that have been flowering for the past few weeks. And it was probably good we didn’t wait any more, because most of them had already produced seeds on the lower half. I gathered just the flowers

lupinflower

150 g of purple lupin flowers went into the dye pot, and I waited for my green yarn to finish. Only it wasn’t green, but just one more yellow. A nice dusty baby yellow, but – yellow

lupindyedwool

Feels Like Spring

Over the Easter, we had lots of sunny days, and temperatures around 15C. Over the past few weeks, more and more flowers peek out. It seems that spring is here, and that meant that the entire family could enjoy our Easter flu/stomach flu outside in the sun!

daffodils

This year, I’m making a real attempt to grow some dye plants myself. In the middle of February, I sowed dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria) in pots outside, only to have this happen a couple of days later:

snowpots

I was not thrilled. The seeds of dyer’s greenweed need cold stratification: a period of moist cold to break the seed’s dormancy and let it germinate. But surely this was too much? This scientific article shows that 5C for 3 months improves germination, so this was colder than that. But my seeds actually made it under the snow, and have just grown above soil now

dyersgreenweed

On March 11th, I sowed woad seeds, and they are also just visible now

woad

Maybe not very exciting in the grand scheme of things, I know, but I’m excited because my previous attempts at growing woad were less successful than this! Just in case, I’ve sowed some more woad seeds on April 3rd. Same day, seeds of coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and yellow chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) went into the ground. So now it’s just fingers crossed.

In case you’re interested: I bought some of my seeds from Wild Colours and the rest from Urtegartneriet (their seeds are organic).