This two-day intensive will set you on the path to unlocking the bold and beautiful colors found in the fungal kingdom.
This two-day intensive will set you on the path to unlocking the bold and beautiful colors found in the fungal kingdom.
Several months ago I received a really sweet letter from a woman I have never met named Amy. It was titled “indirect impacts, circling back to you”. Amy is a member of a weaving guild in Maine. At one of their monthly meetings, another member, who had recently taken my class, brought in her sample card to pass around. Amy wrote to me, that the purple dye had made a real impression with her, and she asked the guild member about its source. The person who took my class shared with her the story about its slow growth, how it should be harvested from the ground; beneath the rocks where it grows, and the lengthy process used to transform the dye to magenta.
A few months after her encounter with the dye samples, Amy said she took a favorite hike, up a hill that overlooks the river. She remembered that the granite rock faces are covered with the peeling lichen she had seen in the photo handout that the guild member had shared. So she took a look around at the base of the rocks, and to her surprise, found broken off pieces of the lichen everywhere! She first filled her hands, then her pockets, and then her hat!
Amy generously offered to send me what she had gathered, in exchange for nothing more than a fistfull of magenta, and today, I was finally able to honor her request. I am also sending her a few other extremely bright mushroom dyed samples and some soft Umbilicaria dyed alpaca yarn.
Her donation was ample, and will supply a year or more classes with the joyful magenta dye. As a teacher, there is nothing more rewarding seeing the the excitement that this color brings my students. Well, maybe one thing, and that is hearing that my stories bring others to experience nature’s bounty in a new way.
“We enjoyed our hike. We usually take it for the long view — it’s a rather high spot with great views up and down the river, and it eventually takes you to a tiny cemetery with gravestones from the 1700s. So, yesterday’s hike, in addition to the long view — also included the contrast of the up-close perusal of the leaf matter at the base of the granite outcroppings, and a new appreciation of this fungus. It added to the pleasure of the hike, to be shifting our focus back and forth from the view down the river, to a close examination of what lay at our feet.”
Thank you for this story Amy, and thank you for your donation!
Gearing up for a flurry of Fibershed classes I find myself inspired to test out some alternatives to commercial mordants. As a long time user of alum and iron, I want to explore alternative ways to bring out these bold colors using locally sourced additives. I am still in the early stages of experimentation, but here are the results of my tests.
The preliminary Fibershed tests look pretty good! Each color set of three represents a different mushroom or pH treatment. Starting left to right the mushrooms are as follows: Cortinarius semisanguineus; Hypomyces lactifluorum pH 7; H. lactifluorum pH 9; Gymnopilus ventricosus; Phaeolus schweinitzii; Pisolithus sp. (under Eucalyptus) pH 9; Pisolithus arhizus pH 9; Phellodon atratus pH 9; Omphalotus olivascens. The first of the set of three is untreated wool, the second was mordanted with Rhubarb leaves (by Birdsong Sundstrom), and the third was mordanted with Valley Oak galls.
Here is a comparative photo of the controls with commercial mordants. The mushrooms are the same as the previous photo: Cortinarius semisanguineus; Hypomyces lactifluorum pH 7; H. lactifluorum pH 9; Gymnopilus ventricosus; Phaeolus schweinitzii; Pisolithus sp. (under Eucalyptus) pH 9; Pisolithus arhizus pH 9; Phellodon atratus pH 9; Omphalotus olivascens. The difference is that the first is unmordanted, the second is mordanted with 15% alum and the third is mordanted with 7% iron.
Additional tests were done with rust water as an alternative to ferrous sulfate. The iron rich solution was made by soaking a rusty steel wool pad in a jar of water/vinegar for a couple of weeks. It did not turn rust red as I expected, but dissolved into a slate black sludge.
The yarn on the left was my first tester and simmered for an hour in a half cup of the iron rich solution, diluted with water. After washing the unbound iron solution out of the wool in a mild soapy detergent, it was simmered along with the ferrous sulfate mordanted control (on the right) in a Phaeolus schweinitzii dye bath. Both resulted in a beautiful deep olive-green; a typical reaction to the dye.
Hailing success, I added a 3oz skein of wool and the rest of my iron solution to a pot of simmering water and repeated the process. This time the results were a rather disappointing brown, as seen in the middle sample. I think that the solution was just too weak to handle the weight of the big skein of wool.
Gauging amounts is going to be a challenge when working with mordant alternatives. And while the brown wool in the middle may be an attractive color, the potential of this mushroom dye is so much more.
Looks like it’s back to the lab for me. I’d love to hear about others experiments with mordant alternatives. Drop me a line at email@example.com or leave a comment if you have had good luck.
Dyeing with mushrooms is a relatively new practice that gained popularity in the 1970s, thanks to the experimentation and publications of Miriam C. Rice and Dorothy Beebee. Their work laid a strong platform for continuing research and advancement. There is no better time than now to pay closer attention to the resources available to us in the means of local, renewable dye sources, as we work to build a healthier planet and support our local ecosystems.
Mushroom dyes have a lot to offer in the way of color and availability. They come up when the fungal organism is ready and offer themselves to our basket; much like ripe fruit from the garden. Here’s a look at sustainable ways to work with these valuable pigments and incorporate them into our regional dye palette.
For those who are just getting started with the dye process, here are some general instructions for using mushroom dyes.
The depth of the colors you achieve are influenced by five crucial elements in this process: the type of fiber, mordants, pH modifiers, the temperature of the dye bath, and the type, amount and condition of mushrooms used.
Mushroom dyes, like many natural dyes, work best on protein fibers like wool, alpaca and silk. Cellulose fibers like cotton and linen require additional treatments to retain the dye pigment. Some mushroom dyes work best without additives, but many colors are greatly enhanced by adding mineral salts, called mordants, to the fibers.
Commercially-available mordants usually come in a powdered form. Generally, alum (aluminum sulfate) is used to brighten colors and iron (ferrous sulfate) is used to darken them. The mordant powder is dissolved in water and simmered for an hour with the wool to be dyed, before the dyeing process. There are additional mineral based mordants that have fallen out of favor due to their potential toxicity, but alum and iron are considered safe.
Alternatives to Commercial Mordants
There is a movement to replace commercial mordants with locally-sourced alternatives. Plant sources that are frequently used include oak galls for their tannins and rhubarb leaves for their oxalic acid. Less common sources include club moss, which is a rare and protected plant, and Symplocos, which proves difficult to grow. However, while researching alum, I came across mention of a raw mineral called alunogen, which has been collected from several sites in Northern California. Alunogen is a hydrated form of alum, and appears to be a good candidate for further experimentation; a mineral club may provide helpful insight on further studies.
Dye colors can also be enhanced by shifting the pH of the dye bath. The most commonly used pH modifiers are either ammonia or washing soda for an alkaline shift, and vinegar for an acidic shift. An easy-to-make, locally-sourced alkalinizing agent is ash water; simply add a half-cup of wood ashes to a cup of water in a quart size jar, shake, and let stand for a few days. Add small amounts of ash liquid to the dye bath to raise the pH to 9. Be sure to wear gloves when working with this liquid, because the high pH may cause burns if left on skin. Lemon juice, vinegar or other acidic substances can be added to certain dyes to brighten the color; for an acidic dye bath, aim for a pH 4.
The temperature and amount of time the fiber is simmered in the dye bath is crucial for achieving optimal color results. There are many different types of pigments found in fungi, some of which are sensitive to excessive heat. In a matter of seconds you can see beautiful violet turn to beige in several different dyes. For most dyes however, keeping the dye bath between 165F-180F and simmering the fiber for an hour will produce the best results.
Northern California has a wealth of wild mushrooms that contain a full spectrum of bright, permanent dyes. Most of the mushrooms used for dyes fruit through fall and winter, when cooler weather and rain come to the region. Mushrooms are the fruiting structures of a larger organism; unlike plants and lichens, the organism is not destroyed or harmed by collection, which means they can be sustainably harvested, if done mindfully, for small batches of dye and individual projects.
Many dye mushrooms have complex relationships with trees and shrubs or other organisms. These relationships are not fully understood and are not easily reproduced in the lab or garden. Some dye mushrooms are wood decayers and therefore could potentially be cultivated, but the commercial demand is not high enough for this to be a lucrative endeavor. For these reasons, dye mushrooms must be collected in the wild.
Dye mushroom habitats are varied, and in Northern California they include urban landscapes, oak-filled canyons, coastal pine bluffs and fog-laced spruce groves. Mushrooms require moisture to fruit, but often all that is needed is a little hydration from a light drizzle, irrigation systems or fog drip. A decaying stump will hold moisture like a sponge, and in a dry fall or winter season may be the best place to look for dye mushrooms.
The following are a selection of Northern California dye mushrooms that are capable of producing bold colors using entirely locally-sourced ingredients. Some of these mushrooms give their best colors with a pH shift, and others work best with mordants, but all can be used either fresh or dried with just water and homemade pH modifiers for beautiful results.
Hypomyces lactifluorum, the Lobster Mushroom. Although not terribly common in Sonoma County, it is frequently found in Mendocino County and is more common as you head north along the coast. It is found in Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce and hemlock forest in the fall, and is easy to recognize by its malformed shape, orange to red-orange color, and lack of gills under its cap. It is considered to be a gourmet mushroom by many, but it is often found past its prime — perfect for the dye pot. This mushroom gives its best color when fresh, but can be stored for later use by freezing it, or drying out all the moisture, and storing it in air tight jars or plastic bags. Lobster mushrooms give a Tang-orange color with no mordant in neutral pH dye bath, while alkalinizing the dye bath with a little ash water will shift the dye color to hot pink or magenta.
Cortinarius smithii is a strikingly beautiful mushroom commonly called the Red-capped Cort. It is a slender mushroom that has a reddish cap with dark burgundy-red gills and a yellow stem. It can be found in coastal pine forests from late fall into early spring. This is a small but powerful dye mushroom, which is sought after by dyers for its ability to make beautiful red, orange and violet dyes. To enhance the reds, it is best used with an alum mordant. An iron-rich or high-pH dye bath will shift the colors towards the violet-purple realm. If extracted in just simmering water it makes a beautiful dusky rose dye, but adding a splash of vinegar to lower the pH will result in a bright orange dye. The name is listed asCortinarius phoeniceus var. occidentalis in most books, but it was recently determined that our Red-Capped Cort is a distinct species and has been given a new name.
Cortinarius cinnamomeus, commonly called the Orange-gilled Cort, is another excellent dye mushroom. Like the Red-Capped Cort, it is commonly found in coastal pine forests throughout the winter. It looks rather dull from the top, but when you flip it over, the underside is lit up with flaming orange gills. This mushroom will give you pale pastel peachy-orange colors if extracted in simmering water alone. When you add a little vinegar to the dye bath, the color will intensify and bloom to a very bright orange dye.
Gymnopilus ventricosus, or the Big Gym, as the name implies, is a giant dye mushroom that is hard to miss. It is a very common wood decayer that grows in large clusters at the base of dead or dying pine trees or stumps. You can get beautiful warm butter yellow colors from simply simmering the mushroom with wool. This mushroom works best fresh, or saved for later use by freezing it, as it tends to lose some of its potency if dried.
Probably the most abundant dye mushroom around is Phaeolus schweinitzii, which is commonly called the Dyer’s Polypore. It is a pathogen and decomposer of conifers, often found at the base of mature trees and stumps throughout the fall. It can grow quite large in size; fruiting bodies over a foot across can be found in wetter seasons. Unlike most other dye fungi, this fungus is best collected while it is still in the early stages of growth. The young, golden-velvet buds sometimes give a brilliant yellow color with no mordant at all, a bright golden yellow can be achieved with an alum mordant and at all stages you may use an iron-rich solution to target the sage to olive green pigments. The yellows become weaker and dingier as the mushroom ages, but the iron enriched green pigments will persist.
Pisolithus arhizus, the Dyer’s Puffball, is one of the strongest dye fungi known. Although it grows in relation to pines and oaks, it is most often found in high traffic areas such as trail sides and medians. Hunting for the Dyer’s Puffball can be done while doing other activities like riding your bike or walking the dog, as they are easy to spot from a distance by their odd shape and brown spore deposit that spills onto the surrounding ground. Be sure to carry bags for collecting this mushroom because the powdery spore mass can be very messy to handle. The dye is so strong it will stain your hands, clothes and pretty much anything it touches; it is one of the few mushroom dyes that will stain counter tops. This fungus gives a wide range of warm colors from deep yellow to autumn gold to dark cocoa brown. The color variation of the dye is greatly influenced by the age of the fungus, the pH of the dye bath and the addition of minerals to the dye water.
Omphalotus olivascens, the Western Jack O’Lantern, is a California specialty. This mushroom thrives in coastal oak forest and is coveted by dyers all over the world. It is called the Jack O’Lantern because when fresh it will actually glow in the dark. It starts growing in the fall, soon after the first heavy rains, but will continue fruiting well into winter, in most years. Look for it clustered at the base of dead and dying oaks. It is capable of producing a dark violet dye without any mordant. However, dye bath temperature seems to play a role in color optimization; aim to keep temperature at 165F and remove wool from dye bath when color looks good. A dark forest green color is easy to achieve with an iron rich dye bath.
Joining a mushroom club and talking to knowledgeable members is the best way to learn about mushrooms. The Sonoma County Mycological Association called SOMA for short, has several experienced mushroom dyers and is a great regional resource for learning more about fungi. There’s also the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF).
Before every workshop I often run a series of tests. I almost always check the dye potential of new collections, and lately I’ve run a few tests to confirm dye notions that I have learned from others.
In a previous post, I tested the oft told story called “Finite Number of Dye Molecules”. This story was told to me in the very first dye class I took, and I have heard it repeated and I have repeated it for years. It basically goes like this: There are a finite number of dye molecules in the dye-bath. Adding excessive water will not dilute the dye in any way. To make a dye less concentrated you must add more fiber.
While there may be merit to this story, I found that adding more water does affect the dye of Cortinarius semisanguineus. While it may not technically dilute it, adding different amounts of water will give you very different results.
Today I tested a couple more stories that I often tell. The first was “Mature Cortinarius semisanguineus dye better than younger specimens”, and the second “You don’t need mordants for lichen dyes”
The Cortinarius specimens tested were collected in the same patch at the same time, sorted by their maturity and dried. Using equal amounts of fungus to wool, the quality of dye from the younger specimens was noticeably deeper and more saturated than from the older specimens. Admittedly, there were variables in this crude test – like fractions of weight and shape of jar, but in this early stage I would say the observations beg for further investigation.
As for the lichen dyes, I used wool premordanted with alum and iron, and while I did see some difference, the quality of dye seem diminished with the use of mordants for this particular lichen. I have seen significant differences in the past performing this same test on Lobaria pulmonata (various shades of beige). Sofor the time being, I will keep this story and will continue to tell it with the mention of exclusions.
The other tests in the photo above were collection tests. I was expecting more color from the two Hydnellums that gave me grey and much less from the ones that gave me blue. Hydnellums can be tricky to identify, and even if you do get a name, it is a well known fact among taxonomists that there are several species parading around under a single (often European) name.
The fungus that produced the glorious blues goes by the name of Hydnellum pineticola, a mushroom that has both a good and bad dye resume. I lucked out with this collection and was stunned by its brilliant blue dye. Another surprise occurred when I pulled out the second dye-bath sample, and in only half the time it was brighter than the first!
It is a good rule of thumb to question the stories you hear and stories you tell, and to share your experiences with others. Who knows where these stories originate, but if we take the time to document our own findings rather than just believing what we are told, progress will be made not only in the world of mushroom dyes, but taxonomy and beyond.
After numerous occasions of accidental fiber felting, the idea of dyeing unspun wool has made me a little nervous. But over the course of the past year I have gained confidence in handling fiber, and finally decided to give it a go.
In preparation, I sewed up several little bags made of sheer curtain material that I purchased from a little senior center craft/thrift shop in Sebastopol, CA. The fabric is some sort of synthetic and does not absorb the dye but is porous enough to allow the color to easily transfer between fungus and wool while keeping the wool free from debris.
I used 7 quart jars in a double boiler so that I could work with just one burner. My wool samples were weighed at 10 grams, then scoured in hot tap water with a drop of Bio-clean laundry soap. They were rinsed twice before being submerged into the 180° dye bath for varying lengths of time. If required, wool samples were mordanted in the jar while being dyed using 20% alum or 10% iron.
I started with 2 grams of Hapilopilus nidulans that I had had mixed results with in the past. I added the alum and a few splashes of ammonia which changed the pale water to an opaque shade of purple best compared to Easter candy. Ammonia was added periodically to keep the pH at a happy 9. This was a ratio test and I was pretty happy with the results of 1:5, of course I am sure more is better, but this little fungus is not easy to find.
Omphalotus olivascens is a mystery to me. It is capable of giving the most beautiful purples but it seems to happen at the whim of the dye bath. The color of the bath is brown and one must look at the wool itself to see the purple. When the color looks just right, the wool is removed from the pot. More often than not the delicate color stays for the rinsing, but as oxidization occurs, the beautiful purples slip away leaving a dismal sordid grey.
For this particular test, I wanted to know if the old rotten stuff mixed in my collection was ok for dye. I selected the most blackened crusty bits from the bag and measured out a 2:1 ratio. The best results often happen with no mordant or pH modification, so this is the route I tried. It took about 30 minutes for the wool to begin to change from the color of a strong black tea to the anticipated smoky-lilac, at which point I turned the heat down and kept it in the pot for about 10 more minutes.
Once removed and rinsed, it was a very pretty color, but as it dried it became a dirty, dingy beige (with purple highlights). Disappointed but determined, I could see that there was still a lot of dye in the bath. Hopeful, I added more wool but after 20 min it was merely grey. In a salvaging act of I briefly removed the second batch of wool, added 10% iron p, bumped the pH up with ammonia and put the wool back in. After another 30 min the wool transformed to a lovely cigar brown. This mushroom has so much potential, there must be a formula, but alas it evades me.
One of the few mushrooms that gives its best dye without mordants is Boletopsis grisea. It is a strange white and dark grey fungus that has pores instead of gills. It has super dense white flesh that occasionally stains pinkish when cut. But what you’d never guess, is that hidden in its pale flesh is potent blue-green dye.
Despite a slight resemblance to boletes, this mushroom is actually related to other tooth fungi (in Thelephoaceae). So like I do with all the toothy dyes, I brought the pH up to 9 with a splash of ammonia. I used 20 grams of fungus and dyed over 30 grams of wool. This mushroom has won me over and resides in my favorite top 10.
Phaeolus schweinitzii gives the best olive greens with iron. I dye my hats, coats, gloves and sweaters this color. However, today I let its alum yellows shine.
Best collected in its prime, these specimens looked great when I picked them back in November. But after drying, the yellow margin of the fungus turned brown and I was starting to doubt their primeness. I used a 1:1 ratio, wanting a potent color and the yellow. There was enough dye left over for a second bath which I added a pinch of iron to for a lime green.
When dyeing with Hypomyces lactiflourum, I find that a slight elevation in pH using a splash of ammonia really helps this mushroom to release its dye. By the time the extraction is done (about an hour) the pH is back to 7 and the dye is simply a dark orange-red.
Ammonia being volatile, evaporates and off-gasses with heat; and with that the pH neutralizes fairly quickly. This can be advantageous it you want the solvent properties of ammonia, but don’t really care for major color changes. Hypomyces dye is particularly sensitive to pH; but in order to bring about lasting color change I use pH modifiers that do not neutralize as quickly. I dip the dyed goods into either a citric acid solution (pH4) or a washing soda bath (pH 9).
Pisolithus tinctorius is a fungus that grows in dry places with oak, both of which Western Washington lacks. Although common in many parts of the US, Pisolithus is a dye source that is mysterious to me. I have never found it myself but have used it on occasion with mixed results. The first time I used it I got a dark cocoa brown, and since have only seen shades of pink and occasionally bright gold.
A little bit of this fungus will turn your dye bath a solid dark brown, so it looks like a strong dyer, even so I used 1:4 and all I got was a light pinkish beige. Not accepting defeat I started a second dye bath, this time using 4:1. The color was a rich, dark sienna. Mystery solved? Not sure.
My only major disappointment was with Sarcodon fuscoindicus, a striking dark violet toothed mushroom that I had heard is a great dyer. I used a 2:1 ratio, kept the pH at 9, babied it and watched it to no avail. I just got pale beige. I will eventually try again, but would love to hear first hand reports for encouragement.
All in all, my experiments with ratios and batts were successful. There was minimal felting and the colors came out concentrated. Now I can ponder the design for my next felting project in color.
There are three mushroom dye reference books that I use on a regular basis. Mushrooms for Color, by Miriam C. Rice; Rainbow Beneath My Feet, by Arleen and Alan Bessette; and Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments and Myco-Stix, also by Miriam C. Rice. I often check all three when looking into the dye potential of unfamiliar mushrooms, or to see how mordants generally affect the color of a specific mushroom dye. I usually refer to Miriam C. Rice’s books for a pre-mordant recipe.
These are all great books that cover a lot of topics but focus on the color range possibilities of mushrooms, however they do not contain recipes for ratios. This is understandable considering the scope of the books and the fact that amount of mushroom needed to make a good dye varies from species to species, and depends on the condition of the fungus; including its maturity, exposure to weather as well as region it which it was collected.
It would take multiple experiments to come up with a ball park range for each species. Collectively, I am sure plenty of research has been done, but it is extremely tedious to attempt to tease this kind of information out of the vaults of blogs and comment threads where I am sure it must be discussed. To save time and keep my sanity, I have resorted to first hand experimentation.
In the old days, I just dumped roughly the same volume of dried mushroom as wool – not paying attention to weights. I used fresh mushrooms or dry mushrooms indiscriminately, and gauged the dye just by eyeballing the mass and intuitively saying when it looked like enough. That method made for some beautiful but overly strong dyes, and if space or time to deal with the left-over dye-baths is a concern, that can mean a lot of waste.
Today I decided to see how far these dye fungi could go. I tried a series of equal weights of dried mushroom to dry wool and was surprised by the intensity of the dyes with such small amounts of fungi. For the known strong dyers, Phaeolus schweinitzii and Cortinarius semisanguineus, I pushed the limits to 1 part mushroom to five parts wool, just to see the reaches of their dye potential. Both produced great colors; the Cortinarius semisanguineus a cherry-red with alum and grapey-gray with iron, and the Phaeolus a golden-yellow with alum and rich golden-green with iron. Omphalotus olivascens at 1:1 gave a lovely blue-gray-violet with alum and dark forest green with iron with subsequent dye-baths yielding equally strong dye; indicating in this case 1:1 was perhaps more than enough.
Though not quite satisfied with the depth of a 1:1 dye, I increased the ratios, this time using two parts fungi per weight to one part wool. Not wanting to double all of the dyes I increased to 2:3 for Cortinarius semisanguineus, Letharia vulpina. The results were noticeable and definitely more impressive. However, there was a lot of dye left in the jars.
To maximize mushroom dyes it is best to make time for subsequent dye-baths. Often, the exhaustive dye-bath reveals the excess pigments that the first dye-bath failed to capture. These might be colors that you didn’t realize were there. In the case of Cortinarius semisanguineus, the reds binds to the alum mordanted wool first and second dye-baths do not give a paler version of the cherry-red, but instead give a peachy-orange. Phaeolus schweinitzii gives a bright yellow with alum mordant that just dulls to straw-beige in a second bath, but the iron mordanted greens seem to go on forever.
Ratios for dye species vary; however, there are a limited number of North American mushroom dyes that are tried, true and solid. I am working out ratio ranges for as many of these that I can access. Please let me know about your ratio experiments and if you have any rules of thumb. So far, I have not figured out a way to measure fresh mushrooms with any consistency and still rely on that intuitive voice that tells me when enough is enough. How do you work with fresh mushrooms?
While visiting the Los Angeles Mycological Society’s annual show, it dawned on me that what we really need is resource for exchanging dye fungi.
Those lucky folks in LA are swimming in Ompholotus olivascens and Pisolithus tinctorius, Two mushrooms that offer a complex pallet of violet, dark forest green, golden-yellow, and every shade of rich brown you can imagine. But, Southern California is so dry, they lack forests that support Dermocybe, Hydnellum, and Phaeolus – mushrooms common in Northern California that give red, blue-green and bright green and yellow dyes. This scenario is repeated all over the world.
It is my hope that The Mushroom Dyers Trading Post will become a barter and trade resource for fiber artists and fiber producers alike. Please feel free to post your mushroom surplus, list your dream fungi, and offer any supporting items you would like to trade, share or barter.
Sometimes good things come to those who wait.
Last spring the Pacific Northwest suffered some severe ice storms that brought down big trees and lots of branches. This caused problems for many people, but there was an upside for me. With the downed branches came menageries of dye lichens, some of which are not easy to come by – especially in such abundance.
When lichens that normally thrive in tree tops are relinquished to the forest floor they will lie there with the branches and be consumed by the natural forces of decay. I try to limit my lichen collecting to the wind-fallen or excessively abundant types.
Over the course of spring, every time I went out to harvest nettles or cottonwood buds, I would bring a little bag and fill it with Evernia prunastri, the Staghorn Lichen. Once home, I’d lay my collection out to air dry and store it for later. Evernia prunastri is sage colored lichen that if left to soak in a mixture of water and ammonia, will slowly develop into a beautiful electric lilac dye. Purple mushroom dyes are rare in the PNW, so this is a welcome addition to the dyers pallet. Technically lichens are weird fungi that require a dependent relationship with certain algae for survival; but that is another story entirely.
Late March of last year, while checking my Verpa bohemica patch, I found huge, old cottonwood trees crisscrossing this usually open creek side forest. Many of the fallen tree tops were decorated with the striking and elusive Xanthoria lichen. In the tree tops, this lichen grows pressed flat against the bark in 2-5inch circles of golden-chartreuse with tiny speckles of lime green discs that are the reproductive structures of the organism. It is often seen much smaller on tombstones and boulders in arid conditions; places where it is best left for the enhancement of the landscape. But here in the humidity of the little river valley it had grown large and abundantly, now littering the wetland where it would soon deteriorate to a patch of slime on the bark. The misty conditions that day made the lichen pliable and slightly less tedious to harvest, but even after a couple of hours I had only collected about a quarter cup.
Xanthoria also requires an extended soak in diluted ammonia to activate the color potential. So one day last April, I made up the lichen ammonia mixes. Though they immediately turned bright colors, I knew the colors I was after would take time to develop. The first few weeks I shook the jars daily, but after a while I neglected them. When I remembered, I checked in them again and after a couple of months the Xanthoria solution was a juicy red and the Evernia a deep burgundy. I had read that ammonia lichen dyes needed to be exposed to oxygen to develop their maximum purple potential, so I set it out over night with the lid removed, and in the morning put the lid back on and shook it some more. Within a few days it transformed to the color of purple kool-aid.
I was very excited to try it out, but I was moving – so into a box it went, and was carried by car all the way from Seattle to Massachusetts. Once unpacked, I’d shake it occasionally and open it for a few hours every once in a while; the colors deepened.
While in Massachusetts I was introduced to Umbilicaria, affectionately known as Rock Tripe – another ammonia activated dye lichen. I was given a couple of jars full, that I processed in the same way as the others. Essentially in the same pattern of attention and neglect. Almost a year later, and another cross-country trip, I decided to finally dye with the ammonia dyes. They looked to delightful in the jars; red juice, grape kool-aid and blackberry wine.
In a double boiler I heated up the ammonia lichen mixtures, adding water to allow for the wool to move freely in the half-gallon jars. I simmered the pot for an hour, until they were as bright as they were going to get. I let the wool sit in the dyes overnight and rinsed them in the morning.
Straight out of the jars, the dyes were spectacular. The Umbilicaria produced a blinding magenta wool and the Evernia was an amethyst violet. As for the Xanthoria, well that produced a special and strange dye. Once removed from the dye-pot, rinsed and set to dry in the sun, it immediately began to show a cyanotic bluing, as though the life was draining from its powder pink glow. The color first took on subtle lavender tones and eventually completely turned a pale slate blue; its lovely warm pink blush forever gone.