This year was my first cultivating pokeberry in my dye garden. The small harvest, just a handfull of berries, turned into a fancy hot pink ink.

The pokeberry plant (Phytolacca americana) grows as a weed in the eastern US, where the poisonous plant used to be eaten by poor people, who boiled it in several shifts of water, removing the toxin (mostly!). The berries are poisonous to people, too, but birds love them, and by eating them help the plant spread. The seeds are of the small tough kind that are not damaged by, and are maybe even more likely to sprout after a trip through a digestive system.

I know the plant is considered a most annoying weed in the US, but it is new and exciting here in my dye garden. Since it changes so much over the growing season, I ended up photographing it many times.

Seeds went into pots outside in April, since temperature changes help them sprout. In the second half of June, they went into their permanent spot. And then:

June 30th. My small plants transferred to the garden.
August 4th. A cluster of tiny white flowers.
August 15th. Berries forming inside the flowers.
September 28th. The unripe berries continue to grow, and the stalk has changed to bright magenta.
October 13th. The berries are almost ripe, the leaves almost gone.
October 23rd. Harvest time!

My largest plant tried forming several berry clusters, but only the earliest one made it to ripe berries. Then, a couple of berries fell off, and I decided that it was harvest time.

It is not impossible to dye wool with pokeberries, but the color is not that lightfast.

With just a handful of berries, really, I decided to make ink with them instead of dyeing wool. That was a welcome chance to try out a recipe fom the new book by Jason Logan, “Make Ink”.

It’s a great book. It has beautiful photographs, artwork using the ink, and it tells multiple tiny stories throughout. My only complaint is that some systematic plant names are missing, and that amounts in several recipes are written in bizarre ways. I’m sure, though, that the author would say that the book is a source of inspiration, not a manifesto to be followed to the letter. 

Pokeberry ink, “Make Ink” tells us, was used by Civil War soldiers to write home, they probably did not have much with them, but pokeberries were easy to find. Native Americans used pokeberry as a medicine plant, more than a dye plant.

Logan filters the pokeberry ink twice. For my little experiment, I just didn’t do that. I just crushed the berries in a fine mesh sieve, and used the juice that dripped out. It worked fine with a brush, but I could not get it to work with my dip pen, maybe because I didn’t filter it.

Trying out my pokeberry ink. The undiluted ink in the middle of the picture. Darker shades behind are made with several layers, light shades in front with diluted ink.
Pokeberry ink on thread leaf coreopsis ecoprint on paper.

Pokeberry is  perennial, so I’m hoping for more berries next year. For ink and experiments on wool, of course, but also because the plant itself adds so much color to the garden.

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