Monday, July 24, 2017

Natural Dyes

by Rebecca Gray-O'Dell

Red.  Yellow.  Blue.
            From childhood, we learn these three colors as primary colors, colors that are used to create other colors.  The principal also applies today in printer inks and toner just as much as it does with crayons or paint.
            But blue, yellow and red are also primary colors in a very different sense.  Historically, they are the first colors used by humans to replicate items seen in their lives.  Red and yellow ochers appear in our earliest art.
            Eventually, these colors find their way into textiles; however, what works for cave paintings doesn’t necessarily work well in clothing.  Pigments derived from minerals and earth don’t always adhere well to the fibers used in clothing production and those that do stick around generally don’t survive repeated exposure to the sun, perspiration and the (very) occasional washing.  So, other means of coloring textiles must be found.
            These desired pigments are found in a variety of plants.  Through human ingenuity and determination, a lot of experimentation and possibly a few accidents along the way, the art of dyeing with plants is discovered. 
Quite a few plants that yield pigments make acceptable colors on cloth.  Some of these plants you can grow in your own garden today.  A word of caution, however, as most of these dye plants tend to act more like a weed than other cultivated plants.  It makes them very easy to grow, even for those not gifted with a green thumb, but require careful attention so as not to overrun the rest of your garden or back yard.
For the most part, it is easy to create your own natural dyes.  You will need to collect enough dyestuff (where the pigment comes from), water and a pot or kettle you don’t plan on using for food.  The use of a mordant, from a metal such as aluminum, iron or copper, is needed to help ‘fix' or set the color, though only in small amounts.  More explicit directions, dye recipes, are available from books on natural or plant-based dyes. 
Golden Marguerite
The color yellow is perhaps the most common color, besides sage and olive greens, produced by plants.  An easy way to experiment with making and using natural dyes is harvesting marigolds, golden marguerites or calendula flowers.  They can be used fresh or dried.  What material you want to dye will depend on how many flowers you need.  A skein of wool yarn will require more dyestuff to produce a good color than a small piece of silk or cotton fabric.  The skin of onions also yields a good yellow on fabric as long as the material being dyed doesn't stay in the dye-bath too long, otherwise, it turns a golden toned brown
Picking calendula flowers
For the more adventuresome, growing lady’s bedstraw and cutting the top part of the plant off while it is in bloom can make a nice yellow dye.  The best yellows are achieved on plant-based fibers, cotton or linen.  Shades of drab green appear when wool is used.  The roots of this plant may also be used to create a red dye.
Weld is perhaps the best plant that produces a long-lasting and vibrant yellow.  It has a very long history of use, dating back to the middle of the Iron Age, about 1 BCE.  A common plant throughout Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, it eventually is introduced to North America, where it is considered to be a weed.  The top part of the plant, the stalk, flowers, and leaves, are used fresh or dried for dyes.  At Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, we have our own bed of weld just started this year, waiting to give us shades of sunshine.
Blue is a mysterious color.  In fact, there are only several types of plants around the world that produce a true-blue dye.  These plants are mostly from the genus Indigofera, which thrives in tropical areas from present day India and other parts of southern Asia, parts of West Africa, and parts of Central and South America.  Two other plants are also common sources of indigo: dyer’s knotweed, used in East Asia, and woad, used primarily in northern Europe.  The oldest use of indigo as a textile dye actually belongs to the coast of modern day Peru, where remains of cloth bearing indigo dates to about 6,000 years ago, a remarkably long time ago for a color that requires multiple processes to extract the color.
Young Japanese indigo plants in the Log Farm garden
Indigo is a difficult color to achieve as far as natural dyes go.  The plants give hardly a hint of the blue pigment they contain, except for a slight bluish tint to the overall green of the plant. Through a multiple step process, the pigment is extracted and then reduced to produce a useable dye.  Each culture has their own procedure for this process, often including fermentation and the use of stale urine to create the chemicals needed to precipitate and create an indigo dye.   Because of this, blue dyers, as well as other dyers, were kept to the fringes of settlements and cities.
It’s hard and often times smelly work, but it’s worth the trouble.  Indigo is a strong and lasting dye.  It will dye any material well, especially cotton, even modern synthetic fabrics.  Unlike other dyes, which require soaking and simmering the material to be colored, indigo needs oxidization, air, to produce blue.  The dye-bath itself is often a yellowish green, with blue appearing on the surface.  After allowing the material to absorb the dye, the material is removed and as the air strikes it, the blue appears.  It takes repeated dips in the indigo bath to produce the darkest shades of blue.
At the museum, there are plantings of both woad and dyer’s knotweed since they are best suited to our local climate.  If you wish to try to make your own indigo magic in your garden, try growing dyer’s knotweed.  There’s nothing wrong with woad, but you will need to grow lots of plants (acres worth) to get a substantial amount of indigo.
Red is another slightly elusive color.  For millennia, only one plant produces a color closest to true red: madder.  Nothing on the top part of the plant confirms what color lies beneath the soil where the vibrant roots reside.  The madder plant is a climbing shrub which can be trained to a trellis to prevent it from overtaking everything else.  The green parts of the plant are somewhat prickly and stick like Velcro.
Roots are harvested when the plant is generally 3-5 years old when the roots are more substantial in size.  They can be used fresh or dried.  Soak the dried or fresh roots to extract the pigment.  Unlocking the red pigment can take some practice as shades of orange are often yielded if the temperature of the dyebath is too hot, the pH is incorrect or the hardness of the water used to make the dyebath is off. 
Practice makes perfect, though, as is the case for what is known as Turkey red.  This particular color is famed for coloring cotton fabrics popular in the 18th and 19th century.  It yields a red more vibrant than the brick red of traditional madder dyes, even though to get that shade required a very lengthy and expensive process. 
You'll find a stand of madder plants growing in our gardens here at the museum.  Rumor has it that some of the madder plants are soon ready to harvest.
From these three colors, you can get nearly every shade of the rainbow.  In fact, yellow and blue are very important in making green since a true green is another hard to achieve color in the natural dye world.  
The world would be quite dull without yellow, red and blue.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Herb Faire: New Heirloom Offerings

by Joanne Ranck-Dirks

Some of the tomato crop from 2016
Every year, we conduct a few tomato trials of heirloom varieties that are new to us.  Our volunteers evaluate the tomatoes and if the tomato doesn't get a strong "yes" vote, we don't grow it again.  The winner from last year's trials is the Black Cherry tomato.  It is a plump and juicy heirloom cherry tomato with a dark purple color.  As a snacking tomato it is a nice mouthful; it looks great in salads and it is also a prolific producer.  Look for it this year in the Heirloom Seed Project's tent at the faire.

The Heirloom Seed Project Tent at the 2016 Herb & Garden Faire
Usually when we think of heirloom vegetables we think of tomatoes, but we also have other interesting and delicious heirloom vegetables.  The HSP will sell individual pots of Lemon and White cucumbers as ell as Patty Pan squash.  These have been known and grown in this area for more than 100 years.  Seeds for these will also be available in the Museum Store during the Herb & Garden Faire.  Because bean planting season comes just after the Herb & Garden Faire, folks may want to purchase beans seeds to plant.  Ornamental beans, such as Scarlet Runner beans and Hyacinth beans, can be purchased in the Landis Valley Museum Store.  Two new varieties of pole beans to try this year are Cardinal pole beans and Green Star pole beans.

Tomatoes are very popular but, because every garden is unique, we encourage you to try new plants in your own space this year.  Your perfect tomato may turn out to be a bean or a cucumber.  Both are great in salads, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Case for Remaining Unattainable: The Blue Rose

by Shayla Carey

I hope you all had a wonderful Valentines Day yesterday—full of requited love and romantic times.  Today, though, I’d like to focus on love unattainable, as symbolized by the blue rose.  Like the black rose, this color is not produced in its purest form by nature in roses.  Florists have their methods of turning white petals to bright or deep blue (example, at left), but gardeners and poets must still pine for happy blooms the color of the sky they smile under.  Rudyard Kipling evoked the blue rose when he wrote a short piece that serves as a warning to suitors with high maintenance sweethearts:

Blue Roses by Rudyard Kipling
Roses red and roses white
Plucked I for my love’s delight.
She would none of all my posies
Bade me gather her blue roses.

Half the world I wandered through
Seeking where such flowers grew.
Half the world unto my quest
Answered me with laugh and jest.

Home I came at wintertide
But my silly love had died.
Seeking with her latest breath
Roses from the arms of Death.

It may be beyond the grave
She shall find what she would have.
Mine was but an idle quest—
Roses white and red are best!

According to Landis Valley’s resident garden historian, Dr. Irwin Richman, for centuries, gardeners used hybridization to tease hints of blue out of red petals.  It didn’t matter if the parents were white, red, or in between, but, because of the more complex chemistry in red petals, they were used more often.  Having said all of that, though, their results were mixed.  “Their results were incredibly subjective,” he says.  “A violet to one skeptical gardener is the elusive prized blue to another.”  He points to a listing in the Heller Rose Company of Indiana catalog from 1916:  “The Wonderful Blue Rose – Violet Blue.”  The description is not a flattering one—especially for a cultivar that the growers are trying to sell—but their honesty proves valuable to posterity.  It is a follows:

“This is the famous ‘Blue Rose’ which is a remarkable variety and endorsed by every leading Rose authority here and in Europe, but in our estimation it has not come up to the recommendation of its introducers.  We have seen it bearing flowers that were very blue and very beautiful, and we have seen it again in other soil bearing flowers which were more of a lavender than a blue, so we think it is largely a question of the soil it is grown in as to whether it develops the color claimed for it by its introducers—cornflower blue.  It is of the Rambler type, a beautiful grower, and even if it never bore a flower it is worth a place in the garden because of its rampant growth and beautiful foliage.  The flowers are produced in great clusters, are semi-double, of medium size, and as a rule are a delicate beautiful blue, but we do not guarantee the color.  It is hardy everywhere; a grand grower; a marvelous bloomer and is one of the most popular Roses in our entire collection.”

image of "Vielchenblau" rose from the Composer in the Garden blog
This variety is still around today and is known as “Veilchenblau,” which is German for violet blue.  According to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website, this nearly-thornless hybrid multiflora rose was bred by J. C. Schmidt in 1909 from ‘Crimson Pirate’ and ‘Souvenir de Brod.’  It does best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade, and can ramble to 10’-15’.  It is hardy to zone 4 and likes a slightly acid, well-drained, loam soil.  It will bloom in late spring, but won’t re-bloom, and the flowers start off as deep magenta, then can fade to a gray-lilac color.

It is interesting that the description above mentions soil.  Some flowers, such as hydrangeas, will turn blue in acid soil.  According to the article, “The Color Conundrum,” by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, in the Spring, 2009 issue of Master Gardener magazine, the red and blue hydrangeas have pigments called anthocyanins in the vacuoles of their petals.  Vacuoles are balloon-like cells filled with organic acids and dissolved salts, minerals, and other chemicals.  Sometimes, these pigments can be manipulated by adjusting the soil acidity, which effects the availability of aluminum to the plant (if there is aluminum in the soil—many soil-less mixes have none).  There are many other factors involved, but many blue flowers produce the anthocyanin delphinidin, and the blue hydrangea—for example—requires this pigment, plus a co-pigment, and aluminum to turn a beautiful shade of blue.  Without all three of these, it will revert to pink.  It’s very complex.

Image of "Applause" courtesy of Wired magazine
Roses, however, do not produce delphinidin naturally, which means that the best that breeders can do is get the faded blue-ish violet colors of cultivars such as “Veilchenblau.”  Scientists at a Japanese company called Suntory have recently genetically engineered a blue rose called “Applause.”  It is touted as the first true blue rose and, thanks to a delphinidin-producing gene inserted from a pansy into “Applause’s” parent, “Cardinal de Richelieu,” it does, indeed produce the blue pigment, though not to the same extent as that of other coveted blue flowers, such as the blue poppy (Mecanopsis grandis, see image below).  "If your soul truly aches for the ultimate blue flower, find the rare and elusive Tibetan blue poppy, Mecanopsis.  Just don't expect to find it at a florist near you," Richman says.

Comparing the two flowers, it is obvious that nature figured out long ago how much delphinidin to pack into vacuoles to produce blue and “Applause” falls a bit short.  The company does cite shortcomings with “Applause” and continues its quest for a more pure blue rose, honing nutrient and aluminum absorption, as well as zeroing in on flavones (a yellow-producing co-pigment) found in other pure blue flowers such as Mecanopsis.  Richman also points out that the real money for Suntory is not in the roses, but in the genes and processes used to engineer the blue rose, as they have patented these from the start to limit competition.
Mecanopsis - the Himalayan Blue Poppy
image by Dr. Irwin Richman

Is this really the blue rose that Kipling sought or is this cheating?  Would his sweetheart have been satisfied with a rose that, according to Wired magazine (“World’s First Blue Rose Soon Available in US," by Danielle Venton, 09/14/11), sold for 10 times as much as other roses when it was introduced or was she just after the unattainable?  Shooting for the moon and landing among the stars is more than just a saying by Norman Vincent Peale; it accurately describes the challenge of trying to obtain the unattainable blue rose and creating something almost as great—the “Vielchenblau” rose, for example.  Suntory used sheer will and billions of yen to engineer a blue rose but, in the process, it may have ruined the romanticism behind the quest for the unattainable by taking away one of its most prominent symbols.  Maybe it’s good that the company holds patents on its rose.  It makes it unattainable to most of us and, in the meantime, gives us back the challenge of accepting, and loving, the roses of red and white we already have.

The blue rose, and its equally elusive black counterpart, will be featured in Richman's book on roses and ray flowers, co-authored with Michael Emery, due out in 2018.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Luck to You in the New Year (with Pork & Sauerkraut)

Blog Post by Shayla Carey

Luck, be it good or bad, is a useful psychological impetus in our daily lives.  Never mind that walking under a ladder is unsafe:  it’s unlucky and so we go around it.  For that reason, we probably save ourselves a lot of hurt from falling objects and/or people.  Traditions abound surrounding luck symbols and, without them, I would have had no reason to try pork and sauerkraut—a savory and salty meal best enjoyed mixed with mashed potatoes (in my humble opinion) and accompanied by cold mulled cider.

A fresh ham on display at the
2016 Harvest Days
Because my Southern Pennsylvania-bred husband wants to ensure our family’s good fortune every year, we feast upon pork and sauerkraut every New Year’s Day.  It’s a Pennsylvania German tradition that dates back centuries1 and, if my husband has anything to do with it, will last for many more years.  The pig as an ancient symbol of luck and was a farm animal in Europe for thousands of years2.  It roots forward, grows fast, and to possess many meant the farmer was prosperous and would eat for a long time to come3 4.  It was also a symbol of fertility and was associated with the Welsh goddess Ceridwen5 and the Gaulish god Moccus (“pig” is “muc” in Irish, “mochyn” in Welsh, and “moch” in modern Gaulish).  To eat it was to subscribe to the folk notion of “like produces like”1 and other cultures eat it on New Years’ Day too.  The South eats ham, fatback, and hog’s jowl; Italy makes their pork into sausage, and people in the Philippines, Cuba, Spain, Portuga, Hungary, and Austria eat a suckling pig roasted whole.6 7

Fresh cabbage enjoying a salt bath as it becomes sauerkraut
I, for one, am more of a fan of the luck applied to cabbage, as I could use a little more green in my pocket.  Who doesn’t?  According to German, Irish, and Pennsylvania German lore, cabbage is a symbol of money and consuming it will help you increase your fortune.  This is mainly because of its green color and tendency to resemble folded money when cooked.  For this reason, it shares its lucky distinction with collard greens, kale and chard in the South, and kale in Denmark.  The Croats and Slovaks enjoy their cabbage surrounding meat.8  The Pennsylvania Germans ferment it for weeks in a salt brine before eating it, keeping the nutrition in and imparting it with its distinctive salty tang.  Irish Americans enjoy cabbage at other times of the year, too, and, coupled with corned beef, makes for a simple, nutritious, and satisfying meal. 9 My family also likes to cook cut up cabbage leaves in the same pot as egg noodles.  They are a great vehicle for butter and parmesan cheese and the dish is a really easy side dish for the winter months, as both noodles and cabbage take the same amount of time to cook.

With pork and cabbage meaning so much to so many cultures, I have to admit that my husband’s family may be on to something.  I certainly do feel lucky to be alive, whole, comfortable, and surrounded by family for the coming year.  In the spirit of wishing you luck in the new year, I leave you with a recipe gleaned from the Landis Valley Cookbook, available at the Landis Valley Museum Store.

Pork and Sauerkraut
3- or 4-pound pork roast
2 baking apples
2 quarts sauerkraut
¼ cup brown sugar (more or less, depending on the tarness of the sauerkraut)
Salt and pepper

Put pork into a large roasting pan, fat side up.  Sear all sides of the meat on top of the stove.  Arrange the sauerkraut on top and around the pork.  Thinly slice the apples and mix with the sauerkraut.  Add brown sugar and stir it well into the sauerkraut.  Add enough water to nearly cover the sauerkraut.  Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes.  Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake until the meat comes off the bones when stuck with a fork.  Serve with mashed potates.  Julia Lewis, c. 1930

Sources:
1South Central Pennsylvania Legends & Lore, by David Puglia, page 26.
2For a really interesting article about the history of pig farming in Europe, click on the BBC article, “Pig DNA reveals farming history.”
3Landis Valley Cookbook, Landis Valley Associates, page 131.
4”Dead Lucky! What Germans Consider Lucky Charms” by Tatjana Kerschbaumer, Goethe Intitut.
5The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, by Lewis Spence, page 160.
6New Year’s traditions around the world,” by Nancy Clanton; Atlanta Journal Contitution.
7”Lucky Foods for the New Year,” by Lauren Salkeld, Epicurious.
8“Lucky Foods for the New Year,” by Annette Foglino, Smithsonian.com.