Some plants get a bad rap. For instance, Scotch Broom, Cytisus scoparius, has a terrible reputation in these parts. There is an ongoing concerted effort to rid the wild spaces of the Northwest of it, including in my neighborhood. But I have to say I have kind of a soft spot for it. Perhaps my attraction to Scotch broom is evidence of my Scots-Irish ancestry showing? Not to minimize it’s capacity for take over – Broom is not the first fearsome thing to come out of Scotland. Remember the wall built in 122 AD by the Romans to keep the Scots out of Roman Britain?
I fear that efforts to curtail broom are as futile as keeping watch for raiders along the 72 mile long Hadrian’s wall. Scotch Broom is very resilient – her seeds can remain viable in soil for upwards of fifty years. On the other hand broom is beloved by pollinators, and fixes nitrogen, which makes her a friend of the soil organisms. Weeds are generally simply plants growing in places where we wish they weren’t. Is it Scotch Broom’s fault that we planted it everywhere to stabilize soil in clearcuts in the 1930’s? From popular to despised in just a few short decades. Poor girl.
The real reason I love broom, is that she generously provides dye. The flowers are so abundant – the branches are dripping with blossoms – it is very easy to gather loads. The blooms can be used to make vibrant yellows, and overdyed for lovely greens and oranges. The whole branches sans blossoms can be used to make a very wash fast golden khaki color on cellulose.
Gorse, Ulex europaeus, also has a history of use as a dye, also has yellow flowers, and is also a noxious weed on the Oregon Coast. It however has nasty thorns that deter me greatly from using it.
We went gathering back in May during the peak of the blossoming. In past years I have noticed that the color you get shifts over the course of the bloom period. Early blooms giving the clearest yellows, the later straggler blooms giving more muddy hues.
Alas this year I made two fatal errors in my dye process.
- Letting the pot of blossoms boil.
- Inadvertently including my clippers in the dye pot – which I only discovered while stirring back down the burgeoning overflowing boil. Sadly Iron is not so good for yellow. ( A small pun for dyers.)
So though we picked flowers at a good time the iron contamination from the clippers, combined with the tannins extracted from the bits of leaf and stem released with the high temperatures, dulled things a bit. This is a reminder of why an ignored pot of a distracted dyer most definitely does boil, often over. I had planned to dye more scarves and some samples, but alas Mistake #3 was to let the left-over pot of broom dye liquid get all gross and moldy while away at work. This after the first go in which I dyed just a few items, one cotton hankersniff and one silk scarf. The yellow of the hanker sniff was better than expected – I wished I had dyed more. Luckily yellow is a the most common color from plants.
There is no record of the silk scarf in its yellow stage. I put the silk scarf into indigo before photographing it in a moment of frenzied excitement. This occurred when the fermentation vat, Rita, finally kicked over to happy status. And I looked madly around the studio for something that could go in immediately, if not sooner. The still wet silk scarf basically jumped into the vat. I swear. (This all happened in the same sort of delirium that overtakes me during canning season – when the possibilities on what can be put into jars can sometimes result in regrettable combinations. Zucchini-plum relish anyone?) Anyway no yellow silk picture for you.
We were busy enough during June that I never got out on another expedition to gather a new basket of broom flowers. One inconvenience of the neighborhood noxious weed squad’s actions is that I can no longer easily walk to gather blooms. So this year my broom blossom efforts have come to an end. (Unless I want to travel to a higher elevation? Hmmm.)
Here are directions for doing Flowers the “right” way – do as I say, not as I do.
Scotch Bloom Flower Dye – Simmer Hot Method:
- Gather a whole heck of a lot of Scotch Broom flowers. No need to be fussy about avoiding every leaf.
- Let the blooms chill out in a wide basket for a few hours – so that all of the spiders and various bugs can escape. Overnight is okay – however if you let it sit a few days things will start to rot.
- Place blooms in a pot with clean water- I use rain water when I can. (Seeing as I live in a rainforest it is usually pretty easy to get.)
- Slowly bring to a gentle simmer -140-160°F for 20-30 minutes, turn off and let cool.
- Stain out blossoms from the cooled down dye liquor. (Though I am sure it is obvious, you are after the liquid – the flowers have done their work.) I use paint straining bags for this sort of thing.
- Enter your well wetted, scoured and Alum mordanted material into the pot with the dye. In my experience Scotch Broom dyes well on protein or cellulose fibers, just not at the same time.
- Bring to a simmer again for half an hour and let material cool overnight in the bath.
- Rinse material and dry.
This pretty much goes for any fresh flower dyes – though no other flower even comes close to Scotch Broom for ease of gathering huge quantities. Looking forward to coreopsis, cosmos, dahlias….
In case you want more intel on Scotch Broom, Gorse or Hadrian’s wall…
Scotch broom: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cytisus_scoparius
Hadrian’s wall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian%27s_Wall