Alder Cones, a traditional Sinixt dye
In 2017 I received a grant from the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance to research the traditional dye and textile plants used by the First Nations of the Columbia Basin area. Please see previous post Oregon Grape, a traditional Sinixt dye for more details on this project.
Alder cones (Alnus Rubra) are a traditional Sinixt dye source that grows prolifically in Southern BC. The small cones form in clusters and are reddish brown in colour. I discovered that Alders like to grow alongside waterways and as I began my search for these trees I was happily surprised to find a large stand of them on my property near the creek! Marilyn said that these cones would usually be harvested in the late fall when they are well ripened and they could be dried and stored for use over the winter months. I didn’t make it out to harvest until December, so I was a bit worried about them being past prime and therefore lacking in dye strength. Luckily for me the dye was still strong and even visible on the snow below the trees.
I easily picked a pot full of the small cones as the snow had weighed the branches down low enough for me to reach them without a ladder. I covered the cones with water from the creek - it was right there and felt more authentic than tap water for my dye experiment! Unlike Wolf Lichen or Oregon Grapes, Alder cones are not sensitive to heating and will retain their colour even at a boil, so onto the wood stove they went.
As the cones began to heat up colour quickly appeared in the water. A lovely, woodsy aroma filled the house as the cones opened up and seeds floated to the surface. There was a distinct oily residue on the top of the water that came from the seeds-no wonder those trees are so popular with birds feeding in the winter! The dye water became a warm, rich brownish red colour very quickly as it continued to heat on the wood stove.
I brought the dyepot to a boil, reduced the heat and kept simmering for an hour, then pulled it off the stove and let it sit overnight to coax as much colour out of the cones as possible. The colour of the water was a mid range reddish brown when I strained it off the next day. Once all the bits were out I put the pot back on the stove and added a few fabric samples…
I used a variety of natural fibres to test the dye with including various wool yarns, wool batting, silk, and a hemp/linen blend. Cones and barks are naturally really high in tannic acid which acts as a mordant or fixative so that the colour will adhere to the fabric. I brought the dyepot back to a simmer with the fabric samples in it for about an hour then checked the colour. Judging by the colour of this lovely dye liquid I thought I would get a rich red/brown colour…instead it was a light tan colour! I simmered for another hour, then removed it from the heat and let it sit overnight to gain maximum colour saturation. In the morning I took the samples out and they weren’t much darker than the day before…
I was quite surprised that the samples retained so little of the rich brown and even less of the reddish colour that was present in the dye bath. The lightest cloth pictured is the hemp/linen- known for its colour resistance -it is actually a very light tan colour, so light the camera isn’t really picking it up. The darkest cloth is silk which is known for its rapid and saturated colour absorption. As usual the range of colours that I can get from one dyepot on different samples amazes me- no two are the same:) Despite my surprise, the colour is lovely and subtle, and even the spent cones are still beautiful.
*Special thanks to storytellers and knowledge keepers Marilyn James and Taress Alexis for their generous sharing of traditional Sinixt knowledge. For information on the Sinixt People’s history, territory, and their ongoing fight with the Canadian government for existence, please check out these links.
*As always when wild harvesting dyes only take 10% of plants/berries/lichen/barks from one area. This allows what is left to multiply and generate more healthy plants for future collecting and continued biodiversity. It also leaves our woodland creatures adequate access to food and shelter sources.