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Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.


The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.


Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.


Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

Did I mention that my parents operate a yarn shop? Its name is Market Street Yarn and Craft and it is located in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  Drop by when you are in the Mid-Atlantic? South? Midwest? whatever region of the nation West Virginia is in. I don’t crochet, knit, or weave, but I love going into the store anyway because there are so many colors of yarn!  From floor to ceiling there are innumerable balls, skeins, spools, and coils of every sort of fiber in every conceivable color.  There are exquisite colors which I have never seen before: greens the color of uncategorized tropical plants, pinks that resemble inconceivable candies from a mad confectioner, midnight violets out of formless dreams… I’m a painter, and I am used to the pigments of my trade: iron oxide, cadmium, cobalt, lead bicarbonate, phthalocyanine, and so forth.  However, dyers have an entirely different palate made of weird organic compounds (well, there are synthetic dyes too, but a lot of them have the same industrial look as everything).  It means that many of the colors have a unique glowing beauty and a strangeness which draws the eye.


There are many different animal fibers—llama, camel, goat, rabbit, muskox, and silk—but of course the vast majority of the yarns are wool, which is sheep hair. Dying wool is an ancient craft which predates writing or money!  Maybe chemistry isn’t the only reason some of those colors are so unique.  Some dyes naturally permeate wool fiber and then stain it permanently, but other dyes require a mordant in order to remain permanently colorfast.

Well, this certainly looks fun...

Well, this certainly looks fun…

Dyeing really is an ancient artisanal craft so, like cheesemaking, carpentry, pickling, or bellcasting, it has its own unique demands which are stated in a specialized language.  There are dyeing words which descend directly from Old English and Latin.  This is a stylish way of saying I am not going to be able to comprehensively write about dyeing wool.  Instead I am going to present a crude little picture gallery of the colors produced by commonly used natural dyestuffs.


Woad is a flowering plant from the steppes of Central Asia which is also known (horrifically) as “Asp of Jerusalem.”  Because it has been used for so long as a dyestuff it naturalized to Europe in classical and medieval times and now even lives in the Americas.

Wool dyed with Queen Anne's Lace

Wool dyed with Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s lace is a member of the carrot family. Native to Europe, it was naturalized to North America by European settlers for unknown reasons—maybe because it can be used to dye fabric off-white (?).

Wools dyed with lichens

Wools dyed with lichens

A bizarre hybrid organism consisting of algae and fungi living in complete symbiosis, lichen comes in many species and varieties.  It can be used to make some of the most colorful and stunning dye colors.

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Cochineal is a name for ground up insects which live parasitically on the carmine plant.  They make a beautiful deep red dye which was once very expensive and denoted royalty or wealth (like murex dye).

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Turmeric is a healthy yellow spice which also dyes animal fibers bright yellow.  An Indian pathologist once confided in me that everyone he had dissected from the subcontinent had yellow viscera because of turmeric (a Ferrebeekeeper fun fact!).

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from

Onionskin is, um, the skin of onions and produces the earth color seen above.

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (

Elderberry is a childhood favorite because there was always a patch behind the garage…and next to the goathouse…and over the hill.  The berries can be cooked to make a tasty syrup or jelly.  They also produce a darkened color when used as a dye. Never confuse goodly elderberries with the next plant, poke, which is a toxic weed…

Wool dyed with poke (

Wool dyed with poke (

Pokeberries are inedible berries of an exquisite deep purple.  They look so tantalizingly delicious and juicy, but beware, they are poisonous (and used to cause a fair number of deaths back in hungrier times).  Get back at them by boiling them into a dye and making the surprisingly pretty hues above.

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Nettles are stinging plants which are fascinating in their own right (and which humankind has put to sundry uses for a long time).  When boiled and used as dye they produce a very pretty color of fabric.

Of course this is just a random list of interesting colors which I liked (although it does provide a rudimentary rainbow).  Some of these materials are rare or expensive… and may not perform as advertised without substantial tinkering.  However sheep week would not be complete without a cursory mention of the dyer’s art (which is so necessary for the aesthetic appreciation of wool).  It’s strange to imagine that the most beautiful Persian rugs are really bits of wool carefully dyed with plants which have been woven together!

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890's (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890’s (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)



Here is a gorgeous warm earth color for Thanksgiving week.  Gamboge is a deep yellow/pale orange color of tremendous antiquity.  By ancient tradition, Theravada monks dye their robes this distinctive color to show their devotion to the middle path.  The color is named after the Latin word for Cambodia, “Gambogia”, which was (and is) a center of Theravada spirituality as well as a major source of milky sap from Gamboge trees (genus Garcinia). Such sap is dried into a brown gum resin which is the main constituent of gamboge dye.


Because the color plays such a large role in the religious life of South Asia, it is well known throughout the world. Gamboge is a lovely and vibrant color in its own right—a perfect medium between orange and yellow.  All sorts of animals, fruit, and flowers can be described as gamboge.  Although Thanksgiving has no color scheme per say, the fallen autumn leaves usually inspire decorations in some combination of gamboge, sienna, and russet.


Wild Cranberry Bog (by Chris Seufert)

The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys.  However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory.  Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall.  The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.

A group of men harvesting cranberries in Wisconsin.

Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries).  The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere.  Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.

Cranberries in a flooded man-made bog awaiting harvesting.

The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse).   As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food.    The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting.  They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages.  Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries”  (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).

Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is.  The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink.  Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color.  The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye.  Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.

Yarn dyed with Cranberries (from godeysknitsof1860)


Mictlancihuatl devouring the living

The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl.  According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new.  But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power.  She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld.  One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races.  In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings.  Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.

altar de muertos

Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld?  Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers.  The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor.  Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers.  It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it  lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”.  The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico.  Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.

And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself?  The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild!  The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold.  The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.

(Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage.  Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils and they are also used as ingredients in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings.  In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success.  The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

Last spring, a comrade invited his friends over to make pysanky—chicken eggs decorated Ukrainian style with beeswax and potent Slavic dyes.

When I was a child, we made Easter eggs with non-toxic edible dyes.  This involved holding a hard boiled egg in a coffee mug of vinegar and dye for a ridiculously long time only to discover the egg had (barely) taken on a faint pastel hue.  Then you would add a decal of a bunny wearing a hair bow.  The decal would frequently split.  Eventually your dad would amble in and eat the thing to spare you from your feelings of embarrassment.

Even though my friend is a cool motorcycle racer, I expected his pysanky-making party to be pretty much the same sort of activity (or perhaps, at best, a drunken folk craft–like making toy soldiers out of round clothepins), but it was not at all similar.  People spent the whole day creating miniature artworks which truly reflected their personalities.  Some of the final pysanka were remarkably lovely and looked like the treasure you get at the end of a videogame when you beat a high level boss:  emerald scepter…famed coconut of Quendor… elf helmet of truesilver…ah, at last, the magical egg of Hutsul!

Eastern European Christians have claimed the egg dying tradition is their own.  According to folk legend, Mary tried to bribe Pontius Pilate with boiled eggs.  When he refused this meager buyoff, she began weeping.  Her tears stained the eggs and caused them to roll to Eastern Europe.  This somewhat feeble tale masks a much more compelling and ancient belief.  I‘m going to quote the website of New York’s foremost pysanky artist, Sofika (who apparently has one name—just like Madonna or Sting).  She writes:

The Hutsuls — mountain people of Western Ukraine – believed that the fate of the world depended upon the pysanka. As long as the egg-decorating custom continued, the world would exist. If this custom was abandoned, evil – in the form of a horrible monster, forever chained to a mountain cliff – would overrun the world. Each year this monster-serpent would send out his henchmen to see how many pysanky were created. If the number was low, the serpent’s chains were loosened and he was free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If, on the other hand, the number of pysanky increased, the chains were tightened and good would triumph over evil for yet another year.

Once again, the root of things is the simple fear of a giant evil serpent god!

A final note: my friend did not host his pysanky party this spring, but I am completely sure this has nothing to do with all of the earthquakes and giant snakes wreaking havoc around the world.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023