Thursday, 9 August 2012

Bees, blackberries and botanics

Even if you ask them most politely, bees are just too busy to stand still while you photograph them. I want to let them have the best of the Golden Rod (Solidago), before I take some for natural dyeing on recently-purchased fleeces. At this time of year all my interest coalesce: bees (I’m a would-be bee keeper), plants - their uses and history, and wool.

With the huge range of acid dyes and ready-dyed Merino tops (rovings) available, it’s thought-provoking to realise just how much time our ancestors must have spent achieving a wide range of colours from natural materials. Having been lucky enough to go on a course run by natural dye expert Jenny Dean, and having successfully replicated shades of the colours in her ‘Wild Colour’ book, I can vouch for the necessity of having all one’s dyeing ducks ready in a row before starting.

Dye plants feature in the new ‘Garden of Edible and Useful Plants’ at London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, which opened a few months ago. The Chelsea Physic is one of London’s hidden treasures whose influential history is somewhat masked by its lower profile today. I say that with great affection, being one of those who’ve studied and received a Diploma in Plants & Plantsmanship in a slightly musty classroom in the Chelsea Physic’s inner sanctum.

The head gardener’s aim for the new space is: “to bring people closer to the plants which are inextricably woven into our everyday lives”. Have we forgotten already how inextricable that link is? I hope not, or the work of centuries will have been for naught. Making sure you had the right plant for making medicine or indeed for dyeing resource-expensive cloth in times past was essential. The eyesight of many scribes and medieval monks was devoted to keeping the knowledge chain intact. You can see the intensity of effort by tracing illustrations of the common blackberry from the Juliana Codex (the Vienna Dioscorides), through other copies of both Dioscorides’ and also Apuleius’ texts, such as the 11th Century Bury Herbal.  (See if you recognise woad or madder in the Bury Herbal pictures!)

A blossoming of interest in herbal cures and dyes amongst intellectual ladies like Maud Grieve in the last century gave the knowledge of centuries a helping hand into the modern era. Today, the mantle of spreading useful plant information to create a sustainable future has been taken up by the Plants for a Future database, which is a superb resource. It alerted me to the existence of a Dyers’ Woodruff I hadn’t come across: like every human being I still have a lot to learn.

Blackberries have various medicinal uses as well as offering potential - if rather elusive - to the natural dyer. My own experiments dyeing with blackberries are mixed. Thinking I’d sufficiently mordanted my Teeswater locks to achieve a purple-pink colour, they promptly turned smokey blue when I washed and felted my yarn. But experimentation is all part of the fun, as Jenny Dean’s trials re-createing Anglo-Saxon dye colours show.

There’s just so much out there that could bring us back into balance with nature. Here’s hoping you find something natural that opens new vistas in your coming week.

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