There’s a collection of great books out there that teach about natural dyes.
The favorite of my reading list is Natural Dyes in the United States, a museum bulletin published by the Smithsonian and written by Rita J. Adrosko in 1968. What I’ve found fascinating in this little book is the discussion on historic development and uses of natural dyes.
Natural dye recipes span centuries and are from many different cultures with rich history of multiple uses including the medicinal qualities. Up until the 1940’s, you could find recipes in the backs of cookbooks for dyes. I love it! It’s another form of cooking (another passion of mine).
The recipes can be as simple as boiling onionskins or as complex (and time consuming) as ‘striping bark from the female Alder tree in spring,’ - if you know where to find it. So, of course, I had to try this. Let’s find some alder.
Luckily, I have a partner in foraging materials. My husband Tom. Before becoming a teacher, he studied Wilderness Management in Ely, Minnesota. He knows his trees (in Latin!) and has taught me that identification is often about feel, smell and location.
His dendrology book has become a common resource for me.
Alder (alnus) is tannin rich and often readily available. Speckled variety is prolific and usually found in dense thickets, swamps, sides of streams and damp banks. For dyes, it’s best gathered in spring. Early settlers use it extensively as a dye and Native Americans to color birch bark canoes. Also a fun fact I found is that in Culpepper’s British Herbal (1652) ‘the leaves of an alder are good for ridding fleas when gather in the morning dew’.
Tom knew exactly where to go to find this tree- my dad, George’s land. It is damp and mostly undeveloped swampy acreage where I spent my teenage years. It’s full of memories and house is currently empty- and badly in need of repair since George passed away in 2013.
I could say this spot is nostalgic and fills me with a little bit of sadness, especially after my father’s death. and the land, a property that me and my siblings own is where I could gather alder.
And cedar… with ancient growth.
And apple bark from the trees my mother planted. Many have toppled over from the beavers that live in the stream. The land is a small slice of undisturbed nature in the northern suburbs.
The afternoon on the land led to three dyes from tree bark that might produce good color and many memories.