Foraging for Seasonal Colour 2. The Alder Cone & Catkin

I can’t remember where I heard that alder cones give a dye but I have dyed with them occasionally for a brown over the years.  This year I thought I would have a little play and see what range of colours I could get. My spaniel likes to swim in a nearby river in North Wales and where he swims I can gather cones and later catkins in between throwing sticks for him.

I think that the alder is much underrated as a source of dyes.  The bark is used almost everywhere the tree is found , and it is widespread throughout most for the temperate world,  for black by mixing the alder bark with iron filings,  Native North American Indians used it for a terracotta red. According to Dominque Cardon1 two tribes, the Micmac and the Ojibwe) did so, chewing the bark to macerate it. I have fermented buckthorn bark (Frangula alnus ) for terracotta red so next time I get hold of alder bark I will try it the same way but not I might add by chewing.

According to the Woodland Trusts the leaves were used for Robin Hood green,  they should be out soon so a later foraging trip is in order. 

I dyed with the cones and the male catkins using a method for investigating the dye potential of plants developed by an American dyer, Fred Gerber, in the 1960s and since adopted by many dyers. The is an slightly abbreviated version of it as Fred Gerber used mordants I don’t use

It’s quite simple: Split the  dye bath into six., one is left untouched.  To the others in order add Copper sulphate, Copper sulphate and Ammonia, Ferrous sulphate , Ferrous sulphate and ammonia . For the little dye baths I was using this amounted to a few grains of each chemical  and a drop or two of ammonia. Just remember if following this to wear protective clothing  and read my blog on keeping yourself safe while dyeing 

The colours from the cones were rich, varying from deep gold to khaki and to a dark greeny black. IMG_3467

The male catkins which are  the long ones,  I dyed two different ways:  one in a small pot sitting a the back of my Rayburn so staying permanently warm  for a week and the other by heating.  The first dye bath gave a stronger yellow than the more traditional method of soaking heating to the simmer  etc, however when the catkins had been left for a week in the latter bath  the colour became as strong .

 I divided the dye bath in exactly the same way as for the cones . And one of the great pleasures of the natural dyer happened a surprising colour, in this case green.   Copper sulphate  with ammonia turned the fibres a true green 


 The colours the alder produces range from yellow, gold , khaki, black, terracotta red and green . Not bad for one tree. 

1Dominique Cardon Natural Dyes Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science Archetype Publications ISBN978-1-904982-00-5

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