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.



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.


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.


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.

10 replies
  1. Marian
    Marian says:

    Excellent post Jenny. Since last year when you told me to use the walnut tree for dyeing, I have used every single part of it …well, except for the trunk as I want that tree to grow, right! Ours has grown so fast that we have now a 5m high tree towering on top of what will soon -when it is finished- be my studio. I have since february a bucket full of hulls from the nuts we ate. I kept saving them and then I just put them in a bucket with water…. and I forgot. The bucket is behind a door so I never see it. I found it the other day and not only it doesn’t smell, but I seem to have harvested some of the nut oil as it came out and on top of the bucket there is a layer or what looks like fat. It isn’t rotten or anything like that…
    Question is… can on use walnuts’ dye bath to prepare fibres which will later be dyed with other natural dyes?? I mean, tannins are good mordants, right?? would they affect the outcome of the colour much (shades, even hues???). Just questions… as soon as spring decided to…start here, I was thinking on experimenting with that outside. But I thought I’d ask since you are an incredible source of knowledge.
    Good luck with the move!!!!!

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      Yes, Mariana, you can certainly use walnut solution as an alternative source of tannin mordant, although the tannin content is not as high as that of oak galls. Also, the walnut solution will impart some colour to the fibres and this will have some effect on the final dyed colour.
      When you use the stored walnut liquid, add more water & simmer it up first for an hour or so, then carefully strain off the solution.
      Sorry this reply is so brief but life is very hectic at the moment.
      Good wishes

  2. Colin Walton
    Colin Walton says:


    Have you thought of putting your name down for an allotment? I am sure all is not lost by moving home. You just have to think of it as a whole new exciting world!

    Have you got a moving date yet?


  3. Dorie
    Dorie says:

    Haven’t been here for a while. Moving home is one thing, but leaving your garden is like leaving your one of your childs. Hope the next owners will take care of your ‘baby’. Thanks for this post, fortunately of have them too. Walnutleaves gives beautifull eco-prints!

  4. mjm
    mjm says:

    As sad as it is to leave your dye garden it can also be exciting to start a new garden even if it is smaller. I have started to appreciate my shrinking garden as I get older. I have let the trees and nature take over so my flower beds have shrunk. amaizingly this doesn’t look to messy because out town board has asked if I will let my garden be part of the town’s garden walk. I am thinking of setting out a dye pot and showing some of the yarns that I have dyed from reading your blog. Maybe i will find some new friends to dye with. after reading the latest entry I think I will dye with birch leaves from a tree that needs to be trimmed.

  5. Kit
    Kit says:

    Thanks for this great post. I have been soaking some birch bark from limbs that fell from our neighbor’s old white birch, following instructions from your book. These quick tips are very helpful — I plan to simmer the bark sometime this week, and I really am hoping for some pinks!

  6. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Do you ever work with dried black walnuts (in the green hulls)? I dried them last fall and they don’t seem to be dyeing a deep rich brown.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      Walnuts can prove fickle in the dye pot, Kathy. Like many other dyers, I don’t always find it easy to get deep browns from them. They often need repeated heating & cooling & sometimes adding oak gall solution (or oak galls) to the dyebath can improve the depth of colour.

  7. kath
    kath says:

    Hello! I stumbled in here while I was Googling walnut trees! I am due to inherit one with my new garden and did not know the leaves etc could be used for dyeing. I am a crafter and I shall enjoy playing once I get myself, my house and my sewing room organised. Nice to meet you all 😀

  8. Liza Steel
    Liza Steel says:

    Hello Jenny, I have just discovered your website. So pleased the move has gone well and you have sold to people who really love your old house and garden as we all did. Good to see the photos of it. I hope to come to Sussex next year so must find out where you are.

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