Natural Dye Notebook :: No. 10, River Birch

Posted by Erin Howe on

What I’m loving about exploring dyes (okay, one of the things) is that each of the dyepots I make has a story attached. This bark and these leaves come from the alders that guard the pond. This maple dyestuff is from the climbing tree in front of the house. These are the beech leaves that I embarrassed my son by collecting during his cross-country training. 

Of course, commercial dyes have their stories too. May I recommend to you Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed The World as a fascinating look at the story of the birth of modern synthetic dyes? But these stories are mine, and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

Now, river birch. Betula nigra. It’s ubiquitous where I live, especially near water, but everywhere else too. It’s not, maybe, as famous as its white-barked cousin, but it has its own appeal, as evidenced by how often it’s planted as a landscape tree, at the entrance to subdivisions, etc. Its flaky brown bark and cascades of small kite-shaped leaves make it a solid contender in the prettiest tree pageant. A magnificent specimen marks the northwest corner of my property, at the edge of the creek, and I snipped some of its dangling branches to make my experiments. 

The leaves gave me gorgeous soft peachy-browns, tending more orange in wool. Next I tried the bark. Now, this was early in my tree-dye experimenting, and I didn’t know what bark to collect to dye with. River birch has that flaky crazy bark, and of course I assumed that’s what one uses. 

Not so fast:

Just nearly nothing. Or, at most, what’s called “dyer’s beige” on the wool there. I'm almost convinced that that's just the color my felt turns when it's been simmered for two hours. Clearly whatever was in the leaves was not in the bark by the time it got to this stage. 

Having already made up soaking jars of cherry and alder bark, though, I thought I knew what was up. I went back to the branches I’d snipped and peeled the bark from those. 

Aha! Found it. Later I learned that the inner bark is where the dye is. So if you’re stripping that off the main trunk of a tree, you’re causing damage to the tree. But most large trees can spare a few twigs. It’s a win for the dyer, and a win for the tree.  

A comparison of river birch leaves and bark:

Pretty peachy tan and soft pink that, again, coordinate nicely. Neither leaf nor bark dye changed color after being left to sit overnight. 

I was in love with trees before. I think all humanity probably is. We have to plant them everywhere we go before it feels like home, we breathe a sigh of relief when we step out of the sunlight beneath their shade. We live a little in awe of the way they live their lives and make it possible for us to live ours. And, well, this just adds another layer to that wonder. When I see these colors I think of my friend on the edge of the creek, quietly doing its tree thing and being amazing. See? Stories.

Procedure notes:

Leaves and bark used at 200% weight of fabric/fiber. Bark soaked for three days. No significant intensification of color overnight. 


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