“It is often used by the common people as a black dye”
John K’Eogh Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica 1735
Alder is a sweet medium sized tree. You can usually spy it lurking on the edges of streams and meandering rivers. Once you start to keep an eye for them, they invariably begin popping up in every wetland you come across.
A good way start tracking them down is to pay notice to the ground. Without fail, you will see the fallen cones in abundance scattered in the area of the parent tree.
These cones, as a source of colour are good booty. They fall in Autumn, but can be found all year round in the vicinity.
To be fair, this is a fairly reliable way of identifying bare winter trees in general.
When I was studding organic horticulture, one set of exams we had was winter twig identification of twenty native species. We had to identify all by their Latin and English names, with extra points to be gotten if you also had the Irish name. To this day I’m unsure if it was an actual part of the exam or if our lecturer just added that the Irish names in there herself. Anyway, the point of this little story is that when we were covering all the course work for this exam (which was also to cover spring buds of the same twenty trees), our lecturer, after much tips on plant iDing ended a class with ‘If branch and bark identification is evading you, look to the ground. What is the leave carpet under your mystery tree?’ It has always stuck with me, and to be honest, has become my primary step of identification.
Not only is the cone caring dye, the bark of alder is also a rich source of dark brown dye
The cones are tannin rich, so they give their colour easily. I have seen them leech their brown tannin into long standing puddles where they have fallen and been left on a quite road adjacent to a once local marsh.
They proffer tannin by soaking and by heat extraction, standing up to a hard boil even, as is the rule of thumb with all woody tannin rich materials.
Autumn is the best time to harvest the cones, even into the winter months. The bark, which is noted in the opening quote as being black, is slightly misleading. It gives a black dye/ink in the same way that oak gall or walnut husk will, with the aid of an iron addition.
The chemical reaction between the tannin and the iron II, results in black, it is true. but the bark alone will give a peat brown.
Bark should be harvested from one branch, cut and taken from the tree in winter, while the sap is dormant.
This is to avoid the age old practice, known as barking or girdling which will slowly kill a tree. Damage like this can be seen on bark that has been nibbled by deer and rabbits and by humans who desire the tannin rich barks for tanning leather. The Brehon Laws make mention to it by giving a method of healing the tree of this invasive practice. They describe the solution to be a paste made of cow dung, new milk and smooth clay, pasted to the wound in its entirety and to be extend by two fingers width below and above the affected area.
While this is an old practice, described in translated texts, that were themselves first taken from a much older oral tradition, I have come across the same remedy being described in texts in relation to orchard management and grafting, sometimes the variation of lime would have been added.
If you are unaware of the Brehon Laws, as a brief side note, they are an incredible set of guidelines for governance in ancient Ireland. Their origin is said to date back to the Tuatha Dé Danann, the mob who were, according to myth, the second race to inhabit the island (Ireland was, by then, an island). In our stories we attribute a lot to these people, going so far as to venerate them as gods. In fact, if new DNA research is anything to go by, they were people who had travelled from Egypt, spent a little time here, built a few awe inspiring monuments, and…well, vanished! They either moved on or were killed off. But their DNA is no longer present or we can no longer detect it in the present DNA within the modern population. Which to be honest, I find even more fascinating than the myths.
Storytelling is a strong and honourable practice. Why I find the new, scientific stories even more fascinating than the myths is that right there, in the myths, lays the truth. Fine, so the Dagha was not a god, but I bet the myth is modelled on a real person, or even several people and so, whether these fair, nature respecting laws were brought from people who came here before the Great Pyramids were built in their native land, or whether they landed and found the small population that was calling this island home already practicing and developing these laws is of no difference (not here for this purpose at any rate). The fact still remains that they are intriguing and well worth checking out if you haven’t had a sniff at them already.
Trees and shrubs feature strongly in the law structure and are divided into three sections: Nobel’s of the Wood, the commoners and the brambles.
Alder falls into the common tree category. The fine for unlawfully cutting any species within this category on someone else property without permission, was a cow. In the same vein, if it was the branches unlawfully felled, the fine was a heifer. Fining was stauncher in the case of the noble species and lesser in the case of the brambles.
Equilibrium seems to be at the core of these laws. Which, I must say, I can dig!
Alder was one of the first colours I began to make. Using the cones, I played with it extensively. This was for the reason that it was growing prolifically in the costal area of sea, salting’s and tributaries that I was at that time living in. In hindsight, it was a great friend to make and use, due to the fact that it is so rich in tannins which it happily gives up, and in hindsight, is fairly indestructible. At the time, I was blind to this.
If you are beginning in your ink making journey, I can highly recommend alder cones. No matter how you extract them, you will get a result. So when you boil them hard, simmer them, soak them, smash and grind them and leave them to soak…all of these methods result in perfectly usable colour compounds. Sur I thought I was a colour making natural, a flipping genius. Why, I asked myself, was my Mam always muttering and swearing over dye baths home, this shit is easy peasy!
Obviously I got my comeuppance fairly livelily, but it was a great start.
Later, when (and still), the perfect black became quite an obsession, I turned again to alder. This time armed with iron. I have also made charcoal using alder branch. Successfully, but I fear my drive for new blacks wasn’t entirely satisfied by alder charcoal.
I am sure somewhere, in some time, there is a household to whom I owe a heifer.
Note on images: In these colour charts I refer to Iron as being one of the modifiers I have used. This is in fact a rust mixture and not to be confused with iron (II) sulphate.