Some Useful Garden Trees

As the time for our move to Sussex draws closer and we shall have to leave this house and my dye garden, I thought I would write a little about some of the trees in this garden that have been useful sources of dye colour.

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WALNUT (Juglans spp.) 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a very small walnut tree, I know, but I have cherished it, as I’ve already tried unsuccessfully several times to persuade a walnut tree to establish itself in our garden. This one was given to me as a seedling and, although I have already managed to harvest leaves for dyeing as they fall in Autumn, it will be many years before I can harvest walnuts.

The walnut is rich in tannin and all parts of the tree can be used in dyeing, including the leaves, bark, heartwood and the outer green cases of the nuts. Walnut doesn’t need a mordant – in fact walnut leaves have a higher fastness rating when used on unmordanted wool than if used on alum-mordanted wool. (Ref: Fast or Fugitive by Gill Dalby). Although dried walnut leaves tend to give colours in the yellow to tan range, sometimes fresh leaves harvested in early summer can give deep browns. Different depths of brown can be achieved from all parts of the walnut tree and colour modifiers can be used to vary the shades. Darker shades of brown can often be achieved by using a rhubarb leaf mordant or base and by using an iron modifier. For maximum colour potential, walnut hulls should be soaked in water for at least several weeks before being simmered to make a dyebath and I often leave them soaking for a year or two. As tannin is astringent they don’t seem to develop an unpleasant odour, as long as they are completely covered by the water, but it’s a good idea to check the liquid level every few months, in case some evaporates. It can sometimes be difficult to get really rich browns from walnut hulls and I have found that adding some oak gall solution to the dyebath often results in deeper shades. To apply the dye, I simmer the fibres in the dyebath, then leave them to cool and repeat the process several times until a reasonable depth of brown is achieved.

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BIRCH (Betula spp.)

 

 

 

 

 

Birches make lovely garden trees, with their leaves trembling gently in the breeze and their attractive bark, and I shall really miss this beautiful tree when we move. Birches are among the most ancient of trees and birch leaves and bark have been used for centuries as dye sources. The leaves give clear yellows and the bark gives shades of tan, brown and sometimes pink. Birch leaves are best used with an alum mordant. The bark can be used without a mordant but an alum mordant will intensify the colours. Birch bark has several layers and the inner layers will often give pretty shades of pink. Like most barks, birch bark benefits from lengthy processing and I usually soak it in water for several weeks before simmering it gently for about an hour to extract the maximum amount of colour. The fibres can be added at any stage, if you intend to leave the bark in the dyebath. However, as small pieces of bark can sometimes be difficult to remove from fibres, I tend to strain off the extracted dye liquid and then I add the fibres, bring the solution to simmering point and then keep the temperature just below a simmer for as long as seems necessary. This is because I have sometimes found that, if a bark dyebath is allowed to boil too much, the tannin in the bark can dull the colours. I then leave the fibres to soak in the dyebath overnight before rinsing them.

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STAGHORN SUMAC (Rhus typhina)

 

 

 

 

 

 The staghorn sumac tree is particularly rich in tannin and the leaves can be used as a tannin mordant for silk and vegetable fibres. The leaves also give a soft yellow dye and the inner bark of the tree can give attractive shades of rust. Apart from its usefulness to dyers, staghorn sumac is an attractive garden shrub, particularly in the Autumn when the  leaves turn beautiful red and orange colours. Its branches are covered in fine brown downy hairs and, when the leaves have fallen, in silhouette they look like antlers, which is why the tree is called staghorn sumac. Some species of sumac have poisonous berries (usually white) but the berries of staghorn sumac are red and harmless and, when ripe, they form candle-like clusters at the tips of the branches. Although the colours from sumac are not remarkable, they can provide useful contrasts to stronger colours.

I shall certainly miss my garden and all the plants and trees that have provided me with such a variety of dye sources over the last 33 years.

My Garden in Spring

This garden is lovely in Spring and we shall be so sad to leave it. Here are some photos I’ve taken recently.

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Starting Another Year in My Dye Garden

Although the weather is still chilly, it’s time to start thinking about the next year in my dye garden. I like to have as many perennial dye plants as possible, so I have two mature bushes of dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) and plenty of madder plants (Rubia tinctorum). I also have lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), wild madder (Rubia peregrina), dyer’s woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) and two small buckthorn bushes (Rhamnus catharticus). I am nurturing a small evergreen oak, which I grew from an acorn given to me by a friend, and a small Venetian sumac tree (Cotinus coggygria), although it will be a while before these provide serious dyeing materials. The more common Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), which grows almost like a weed in our garden, is also a useful tree, especially as a source of tannin. And I mustn’t forget our huge eucalyptus, or the walnut tree, still in its pot, that was given to me three years ago. Unfortunately walnut trees don’t seem to thrive in our garden and I’ve tried several times to plant one, but without success. This is a great pity as walnut is among the most useful of dye sources, so I’m cossetting this one and will continue to re-pot it for as long as I can. Of course, some dye plants have to be grown each year from seed and I usually grow woad and weld every year. If I’m lucky, I don’t have to sow seeds and can rely on self-seeded plants springing up all over the garden, ready to be transplanted to the dye garden.

This year, however, I’ve looked in vain for weld seedlings, so I shall have to sow some weld seeds. As far as woad is concerned, I have plenty of seedlings coming up but I shall also sow some seed, as my friend & fellow dyer, Chris Dobson, has kindly given me some seeds from her woad plants, which seemed so much more vigorous than mine last year. So this week I shall start sowing some seeds. I may also sow some seeds for flowers, such as calendula, which I love and from which I regularly make calendula ointment to treat cuts and rashes, and zinnias, which come in such lovely colours. And I think it will also be time to start off my tomatoes although I don’t usually sow the beans and courgettes until mid-April.

img_1987This an overwintered woad plant from last year which will produce a flowering stalk and provide seed for next spring.

 

 

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 This is a perennial dyer’s broom bush, with a few seed pods to be seen and this year’s new growth starting to develop. Used fresh, the prunings give lovely bright greeny yellows.

 

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This is my small evergreen oak tree. I’m not sure exactly which  species of Quercus it is but it may be Quercus ilex, the Holm Oak .