An alder hedge in an apple orchard near the Juniper & Bliss studio.
Despite the apparent bleakness, winter is a treasure-trove of natural dyes which we forage and store in the Juniper & Bliss studio for use throughout the year. Today I want to explore the wonderful properties of the alder tree (Alnus glutinosa). The flowers that turn into small woody cone-like fruits, the double serrated leaves and the dark, fissured bark often mottled with lichen are staples in our larder.
Alder windbreaks are a typical site in the vineyards of southern England.
How To Forage Sustainably
Alder trees grow freely along waterways, in ancient woodlands and hedgerows that surround our studio in Kent. Though plentiful in supply, it is still important to be aware of the impact of foraging on the biotope. There are simple rules for wild harvesting which ensure that the tree and the wildlife that depend on it continue to flourish unharmed. Always make sure that you are taking no more than 10% of any cones, berries, bark and leaves from the area.
Although there are many parts of the alder tree that yield beautiful dyes, we tend to stick to the cones and fallen branches and resist the temptation to take pollinating catkins for a lovely green, the young shoots for yellowish cinnamons and the fresh wood for pinky fawn. Though after strong winds all these parts of the tree can be strews on the ground and we use them for small projects. Remember to tread lightly for alders are noted for adding nitrogen and improving soil fertility.
Alder branches on the ground after a stormy night.
Considering Wild-Life And Bio-Diversity
Adhering to the 10% rule I mentioned earlier, ensures that there is enough left over for wild-life and biodiversity which are at the heart of all conservation. Bees feed on the nectar of the catkins whilst birds like the goldfinch eat the seeds. The Butterfly Conservation Society documents how the larvae of several species of moths feed on alder leaves.
Pebble Hook-tip moth
The Alder Kitten or Furcula bicuspis that fly from May to June from the north to the south of England starts off in alder trees, as do Autumnal Moth - Epirrita autumnata, the Blue-bordered Carpet moth Plemyria rubiginata and Pebble Hook-tip Drepana falcataria. Of the Pebbel Hook-Tip moth, the Butterfly Conservation Society tells us that the adults are seldom seen and that larvae feed and grow in high canopy and overwinter as pupae in a thin cocoon inside curled leaves.
The RHS mentions the metallic blue Alder Leaf Beetle (Agelastica alni) as being part of the tree itself as it feeds on alder leaves and encourages birds and ground beetles.
Alder Leaf Beetle- (Agelastica alni)
Alder Kitten Caterpillar. Photograph by Wild Life Insight.
Many species of wildflowers, fungi and lichen grow happily on the wet ground around the alder roots, where otters sometime make homes.
Natural Dyeing With Alder Cones
The historic use of alder dye has been traced back to the Laplanders who are known to have chewed alder bark and used the saliva to dye their leather garments. High in tannic acid, the dye properties of alder have been an ancient favourite, initially for leather, later transferring to textiles. Alder has a tannin content of 20% which means that it is colourfast, light fast and wash fast and bonds wonderfully to both protein fibres like wool and silk as well as cellulose fibres like cotton and hemp.
Hand knitted blanket dyed with alder cones
Mid brown woollen shawls dyed with Canadian Alder cones from the gardens at Great Dixter.
Having looked into the effects of dye effluent on the soil, at Juniper & Bliss we took the decision not use any chemical or mineral additives like iron and copper in our practice as these are harmful to the soil. Instead, we follow an environmentally friendly and organic, albeit lengthy process to extract pigment. The first stage of this slow and patient work is to macerate the cones in water for 6 months to a year. Macerating vats are a permanent fixture in all corners of our studio, which in the early weeks is heady with a woody aroma.
Alder cones in the studio window
It is only when the water has turned a heavy blackish brown and smells deeply of earth, that we start to work with the tannin rich solution. After the long macerating period, the dye is strong, rich and nuanced.
Alder cones exhausted of their tannin rich dye after months of maceration
Skeins of Blue Faced Leicester wool drying in the wind - dyed with alder cone second dye bath
Alder dyed woollen blanket
Alder cones are one of Juniper & Bliss favourite dye material and using different recipes we have developed shades ranging from moody browns, tans, golds and rusts. The wool on the line is a soft gold, whilst the blanket above shows a range of earthy tones to sober fawns and the shawl, fresh from the dye pot is an orangey rust.
Our Botanica shawl, fresh out of a copper pot with alder dye
Margent Farm Hemp/Pla blend dyed with alder cones
If you are not a natural dyer it may interest you to know that factors such as cooking temperature, water type (spring water, tap water, rainwater) and the material of the dye pot (copper, aluminium, stainless steel) have a significant influence on the outcome.
Our copper pot used to dye with alder cones
Slow-Living And The Environment
As more of us are signing up to the benefits of slow living we are confronted with a myriad of issues and complexities when making simple decisions. Yes, we would like to live a life that is ‘better’ for us and better for the environment. We want to be “organic” in our life choices but if voices whisper doubt how do we respond? What do we need to know to acknowledge doubt and how can we dig deeper to understand "green washing"? What questions should we ask to be certain that the direction we are taking is genuinely sustainable?
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