Autumn has arrived, the summer plants have faded and the trees are shedding their leaves. All beings are preparing for winter. We withdraw and enjoy the harvest of the previous months.
While summer is abundant and the time to forage, winter is for being cosy indoors, crafting and sure, also dye pots. But are you wondering if you could still find dye plants now?
That certainly depends on the weather in your region, but I would say yes. (Even though I have already collected and dried some things for the cold season over the summer.)
On my walk today, in early November, I found walnut leaves. Treasures can still be discovered now, especially when trees are growing a protected location.
I remember last year in November I also collected some cones from alder trees and caramel-coloured leaves from beech trees. If I collect something this time of year, it will mainly be what I can find on the ground, rather than picking from trees.
Dyeing with walnut leaves
Last year I prepared two dye baths to compare: one with walnut leaves that I collected green earlier in the year and then dried, and some that had already turned bright yellow on the tree. I wondered which would yield more dye, or if there'd even be a difference. My conclusion was that the discoloured autumn leaves still dyed intensely. So there is still dyestuff to be found late in the year!
While the microseason of fresh green walnut hulls is already passed, fortunately, walnut leaves can be found for a longer period.
Purple leaf plum
In my favourite park I often walk by a fabulous purple leaf plum. Here I always find plenty of leaves on the ground after windy days, and sometimes only take a handful of leaves with me. There is a tree like that in your neighbourhood, but you only can gather a small amount of leaves at a time? Then try drying the leaves and keep gathering until you have enough for a small dye pot. Or try bundle dyeing or eco printing - then a small amount of leaves will be sufficient!
After a violent storm a few days ago, "my" blood plum unfortunately lost a large branch. So, for once, I was able to completely fill my small bag with the leaves. (If you want to go gather leaves after a storm, be careful. Branches could fall down later if the tree was damaged.)
Some trees, such as young beeches, keep their leaves on the tree in winter, while all other deciduous trees are bare. This probably protects the young trees throughout the winter. So we shouldn't defoliate them for our dye pot! When gathering cones, acorns or other wild fruits and seeds, always pay attention to your surroundings. Is there only little of them in your area, or is it a year with only a small number of acorns, for example? In that case I'd leave the fruits for birds and other animals. They depend on these food sources, and in some years they can be sparse. Maybe they'll be plenty again the year after, and you can gather some for your dye pot with no harm.
Dyeing with discoloured autumn leaves
So I like to collect leaves from the ground, like I did with the blood plum... Either after a storm, when whole branches with still green leaves lie on the ground and I can simply pick them up from the paths on a walk. Or in autumn, when the trees shed their leaves.
I dyed beautiful tones not only with the discoloured autumn leaves of the walnut, but also with leaves of oak and beech that had turned reddish brown.
If you collect leaves from the ground, however, they should still be as fresh and intact as possible, not mushy or already very fragile. Leaves that have been lying on the ground for a long time or soaked in puddles for days, I would no longer spend time on to collect. If they are still in good condition (the leaf structure still feels like leaves on a tree) then experimenting with them is should be worthwhile.
Do you have any ideas on the topic? Or do you prefer not to collect anything in autumn?
Summer is abundant with plants and flowers! An invitation to smell blooms on walks, to stare dreamily into the canopy while lying on a meadow – or to forage and dye. If you are not familiar to gathering wild plants, I would like to introduce you to some things to consider. And at the end of this post you'll see three plants that you are sure to find if you're not located too far from here.
Plants take care of us - plants grow food, medicine, fibers that clothe and warm us, can be a roof over our heads when it rains, and they also contain dyes.
Anything one could really ask for. When I remind myself of that, I feel so very grateful. And I want to return this generosity with consideration and respect.
With all the abundance, the forest, the meadow, are not a supermarket - not everything is always available in reliable quantities, and the shelves are not regularly replenished once there empty. In no way does this mean that we should only gaze at wild plants from afar, and look at nature as something we're no part of. Quite the contrary - I recommend to get familiar and immerse oneself.
Kennst du deinen Ort?
Location is important to consider for foagering. Where are you? You should not collect in protected areas. Different rules may apply in parks and gardens. Especially in places that are frequented by many people, such as inner-city parks, I collect leaves or acorns only when they have fallen to the ground (or after cutting). Are there only a few flowers in one place, or have the very first early blooms awakened? Then insects that collect pollen or nectar have priority. A nice side effect of getting to know your place, becoming familiar, might be a growing sense of home and groundedness. I feel rooted when observing my surroundings, when I get to know the plants I visit again and again throughout the year.
Get to know the plants
... that you want to pick. There are some poisonous plants, some of which are lookalikes of non-poisonous plants. There are plenty of dye plants, usually you can find good alternatives to poisonous plants.
If you are unsure, take a photo of the plant, then you can have it identified (or try your luck with an identification app). Photos of the location and of the leaves, the stalk, the flower and/or fruit are even better to identify a plant than a branch or a single picked leaf. And the plant can stay put.
Field guide books can be helpful, and I'd recommend to join foraging tours or guided walks in your location. Or visit local botanical gardens or herb gardens. Especially smaller, community led ones, often showcase local flora.
But back to foraging: only take it with you if you recognize the plant. And only cut whatever you want to take it with you. Maybe you also know this rule from unenthusiastically mushroom picking as a child?
Of course, there are also rare, protected plants - maybe the probability is (unfortunately) not that great that you will find one. But that's another reason we shouldn't pick any unknown plants.
Are you out and about in the forest or on pristine meadows? From April and throughout summer you should stick to the trails while foraging, especially if you are not that familiar with the place and the wildlife. In order to not disturb ground-breeding birds and other animals. The good news is that there are often remarkably diverse plants along paths and trails anyway!
Some practical foraging guidelines
So, you are not in a protected area, the plants in front of you are not rare. How to proceed now? Regulations on that topic may differ, but to my surprise the German legal take on foraging is quite clear and easy to understand. There is the so-calledHandstraußregelung“: Which could be translated as bouquet regulation. "Everyone is allowed to carefully remove and acquire small quantities of wild flowers (...) and branches of wild plants from nature in places that are not subject to entry restrictions for personal use."
Other guidelines by herbalists are: don't take more than you need, and only when there is plenty.
I like this idea that the place you foraged in should pretty much look like before once you're done – with plenty of fruit, seeds, flowers still in place! I only forage wild plants when they're abundant. I prefer to take a little from each plant (depending on the plant it might be a flower, a few twigs or leaves). I'd rather pick the tip and encourage more new growth instead of the entire plant. A friend recently told me, whenever she sees an insect or a bird on a plant she skips it, leaving it to them. On an event by Wildwärts I heard "one part for you, one for the plant, and one for the fairies", which I think is especially good for children to remember!
Give and take
In Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (now also available in German ) there is an entire chapter Honorable Harvest, which I'd recommend to read (as the entire book). The author highlights respect and reciprocity, kinship, as guidelines fo foraging, integral to her indigenous heritage. That means, among other things: never take the first and never the last thing you see (i.e. nothing under certain circumstances). The plants take care of us, how can we respectfully reciprocate? Nature is generous, giving - and wherever you are given to, you only take what you can use, you share, you don't steal. A forest, meadow, garden is not the place for greed because there is no shortage. It is also important to ask the plants for permission before harvesting. Which might sound the most unfamiliar as it is so opposed to how many of us are taught to view plants. But something to ponder, and things to un- and relearn?
Personally, I don't harvest roots for dyeing in the wild. So perennials can sprout again. I leave flowers so that they can form seeds. And for stubborn stems, it's good to have scissors or a knife with you to avoid accidentally uprooting entire plants. I collect in cloth bags or paper bags that used to contain fruit or vegetables, to easily transport the plants. And if I remember to, I'll also have a plastic bag with me to collect plastic trash lying around. For a bit of practical reciprocity between me and my environment.
Three dye plants that you can probably find
At the moment I at least see these three plants all the time, on walks in the country side and in the city.
Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris
... is a traditional medicinal plant that used to be used in a variety of ways. It was also used as a herb in greasy heavy foods to aid digestion. Today mugwort is rarely used for both, so why not test it for dyeing?
Mugwort rather easy to recognize by its pinnate leaves with the typical silver-gray underside.
I harvested it for dyeing just before it bloomed. But if you're allergic to mugwort, as many are, you might just leave this plant alone. I harvested my mugwort bouquet from the side of the road, on the way to our little garden. Road sides are where you can see it very often, also on fallow land, at construction sites and in parks that are not constantly mowed.
I walked down the street for a bit, with scissors the cut the firm stems, and harvested only a few tips from each plant along the way. And I already spied a lot of goldenrod, which will also soon bloom throughout the city.
Canadian goldenrod, Solidago canadensis
You can read even more on this plant in a previous post. It is definitely one of the dye plants that grow abundantly here, and like mugwort goldenrod is also a medicinal plant. You can use both leaves and flowers for dyeing. I especially like to harvest the flower stalks with the upper leaves before the buds open.
If you look closely, you can spot goldenrod everywhere even now, in mid-July. But once it blooms in late summer, it really can't be missed with its bright yellow flowers!
In some areas there is even a recommendation to remove this plant, as it can spread a lot with its rhizomes. It can crowd out other plants in certain biotopes, and so Canadian goldenrod, once introduced as an ornamental plant, often does not have the best reputation.
In my alotment, goldenrod it is allowed to grow. I harvest some of it, and remove plants where they take over. I then dye with them, or even make myself a tea. And otherwise I enjoy the flowers, and the droves of insects that they attract.
So, maybe there are actions in your area to remove goldenrod in specially protected landscapes? There you could harvest to your heart's content. But unless this is specified: the same rules apply to goldenrod as to other wild plants. But you can surely fill a dye pot with this plant, as abundant as it tends to grow.
Wild carrot, Daucus carota
I love the delicate flowers of Wild carrot, or Queen Anne's Lace, and so usually I do not pick any of them. Instead I use the green tops of my garden carrots – with both you can dye beautiful yellows. But this year I have seen them in such large quantities that I could have picked a bouquet after all.
And Wild carrot is well suited even for beginner foragers because, unlike many other umbellifers, it can be clearly identified. There are some poisonous plants in this family, and many umbellifers (or apiaceae) do look quite similar. For example, cow parsely, as a non-poisonous dye plant, is very easy to mix up with the poisonous rough chervil or the very poisonous hemlock.
So, Wild carrot can be identified by the shape of its inflorescences, which look like fine, dense nests or an inverted lace cap (hence the name Queen Anne's lace, I assume). And you can look for the biggest of it's flower stalks - it should have a red (sometimes pink) or almost black flower in the middle of all the tiny white flowers. None of the poisonous umbellifers in our area have a similar "dot" in the centre of their flower clusters. For dyeing you can harvest both inflorescence and leaves.
In the past months I have had quite a few conversations on this topic that eventually inspired me to write on it, too. For example with Julia from Berliner Zauberkraut, who manufactures biological cleaners, and Tash from Avantgarden.Life, who also offers foraging workshops, focussing on herbal medicine.
From late summer onwards it can hardly be overlooked and is in full bloom: The time has come to dye beautiful yellows with goldenrod. Comparing my garden today on September 1st, 2020, with photos from previous years, it probably started to blossom earlier this year than in previous years. But it's still not too late to get your dye pots ready!
Goldenrod is one of the Dye plantsin my garden that just grow without any of my doing. This perennial reproduces through seeds, but also through rhizomes (i.e. underground) and has come to us from our neighboring garden. I harvest it abundantly, and wherever it threatens to take over beds, I dig it up.
Canadian goldenrod is the most common variant here now, Solidago canadensisIt is classified as a neophyte, meaning it was introduced in Europe after 1492. As the name suggests it is native to North America. "Neophyte", an invasive species that has been introduced, the vocabulary does not sound too friendly – but of course the plant did not migrate here on its own, even with bad intentions, but was brought to Europe as a valued ornamental plant. Although widespread in Germany, Canadian goldenrod is only rated problematic in a few areas here. According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation it has only a small impact on endangered species.So no reason to start removing goldenrod anywhere you see it! Goldenrod keeps blooming late in the season and is great for pollinating insects, and just as European goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea, is considered a medicinal plant.
Dyeing with goldenrod
I love to dry and store goldenrod to use in winter, as it is so abundant here. But I have heard from several dyers they don't get as clear yellow tones from dried goldenrod.
Edit: I suspect these unreliable dye results from dry goldenrod might have something to do with water quality. The Berlin tap water I use is very hard and has a neutral to minimally alkaline pH. If your water is very soft or acidic, and you have no success with this dye plant, try adding chalk (calcium carbonate). Here Catherine Ellis has written about the effect of pH on yellow dyes, I highly suggest to take a look.
All that said, it's the easiest to dye with fresh goldenrod while it's in season. Compared to other yellow plant dyes, such as dyer's chamomile and weld, I tend to use more plant material with goldenrod for bright dye results. But as it grows practically everywhere, that's no problem as long as the dye pot is big enough! You can use flowers, flowers and leaves, for dyeing. The former dyes somewhat cleaner tones. When heating the plant matter and when dyeing, I make sure that it doesn't get too hot. If the dye is boiling for a longer period of time, the colour sometimes tends to have a brownish tinge instead of a rich yellow.
As always when dyeing with plants: it's well worth taking your time with it. That begins with preparing fabric or woolen yarn. Pre-mordanting is particularly important on plant fibres such as cotton fabric (it is in general, but especially so with this dye plant). Goldenrod dye takes definitely better to wool and silk - which does not mean that it is not worth experimenting with cotton fabrics!
Here I used as much goldenrod as I could fit in my pot. I didn't weigh any plants or fabric samples - but all fabrics were mordanted beforehand. And again and again I find it exciting to see how different mordants affect the color! I poured water on the flowers and slowly warmed them up and simmered for about two hours. For dyeing I poured everything through a cloth, squeezed out the flowers, and then put fabrics and woolen thread in it. And after the first round, I dyed other fabrics to exhaust the dye bath.
Drying goldenrod for the winter
To store goldenrod, I cut the flowering shoots so that I mainly harvest flowers and a few leaves. If there are already small side shoots, I cut above them so they flower again soon. It is best to harvest the flowers before they have fully opened, otherwise they ripen into fluffy seeds that spread everywhere like tiny parachutes. To dry them, I hang goldenrod bouquets upside down, or lay them on paper or a lattice. In a dry and shady place, in my case in our garden shed. Once dry, I put them in large paper bags or cloth bags. To save space, you can strip the dry leaves and flowers off the almost woody stems before packing them.
To dye with the stored goldenrod, I first soak the dried plant in cold water overnight before carefully heating them to extract the dye.
What better way to start this new blog on a new website with a garden tour? This spring, when workshops were cancelled due to the pandemic, I was happy to ship many dye seeds to plant dye enthusiasts. Instead of meeting in workshops, I found myself starting dye seeds at home and share the process on stories at Instagram. The whole process is saved in the highlights. And this is what became of the tiny plants!
Blue: Indigo bearing plants
Dyer's knotweed or Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorum,and woad, Isatis tinctoriatwo very different plants, both contain precious indigo. The woad plants, first damaged by hail in June, now nibbled on, is still smaller than last year at this time. I already was able to have a first little harvest from Japanese indigo, mainly to encourage the plants to grow back more and bushier.
I'm curious to watch their development this year, because after two very warm summers it has been quite cool and windy a lot of the time this year, not ideal conditions for this plant.
Woad, too, contains most indigo when it's exposed to lots of sunshine.
Flowers for dyeing
So my indigo harvest so far was very modest. I hope it will be sunnier again soon and more will follow! In the meantime, however, harvesting of the flowering dye plants has begun - dyer's marigold, Tagetes erecta (two different varieties this year), bright orange cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus, and delicate tickseed, Coreopsis tinctoria.
...and pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, these flowers can also be used for dyeing. But I prefer to make oil extracts from them.
The two yellow dye plants have struggled a bit so far: Weld, Reseda luteola, and dyer's chamomile, Anthemis tinctoria. I did get to harvest a bit of both, but don't expect much more. Many a weld plant did simply dissapear over night, and I'm not sure who snacks on them. Only a handful of plants survived, but I'm determined to try again next year.
The chamomile plants from last year in particular have already bloomed profusely, and then some just died within a few days, heavily infested with aphids. I usually rely on beneficial insects like the ladybug larvae and time to fix issues like that, but this time they weren't fast enough it seems. Crossing my fingers the plants that made it through will recover!
Red dyes in the garden
And lastly, madder, Rubia tinctorum. There might finally be a harvest here at the end of summer, though I got so attached to the plant that I'm not sure I'll actually do it! This is the only one of the plants that I grow for dyeing that stores the coveted dye in the roots. Harvesting is recommended only from the third year. By then the roots are nice and thick. If you have them in your garden, you could also carefully dig out some roots from under the plant for small tests, but I never did. The older madder plants are starting to set flowers right now – from many flowers usually get a handful of seeds, and suspect someone nibbles on them when they're young!