To Dye For: Wild Edibles That Are Not Just for Eating

Fall, like twerking, is all about the booty. Booty in the older sense, akin to a pirate’s treasure hidden under the earth waiting for someone to discover it.

Fall, like twerking, is all about the booty. Booty in the older sense, akin to a pirate’s treasure hidden under the earth waiting for someone to discover it. 

The  abundance of the season is obvious, with its blueberry-dappled slopes, abandoned orchards that still bear much fruit, scoffs of chanterelles, and maybe even a drop of moose depending on when season starts in your zone, but don’t stop there. Like an iceberg, you only see the very tip from shore. Dive in to the fall harvest and you’ll begin to see how many jewels carpet the glens and barrens of your home.

Partridgeberries are abundant here: tart red berries that are best picked after the first frost provide sustenance to wildlife and humans alike, though our species tends to like processing the berries into sweetened jams and syrups to cut the berries tang, even when served with savoury meals like game birds or rabbit stew.  Now here’s the cool thing. You can dye wool with things you pick in the forest. The partridgeberry itself  dyes wool  beautiful red or pink shades, but does not take well and is best for items that will be overdyed or those that will not be washed much.

I use a blueberry and partridgeberry dye bath for producing exquisite wine/plum wool for felting projects. The leaves and stems of the plant, however, produce a yellow dye that when properly mordanted has real staying power. The leaves are also used medicinally as they contain high levels of arbutin, a phytochemical that has been shown to deactivate tyrosinase, an enzyme that effects skin pigmentation and can help with such issues as hyperpigmenation.

Xerocomus is a genus of mushroom that is often confused with Boletes, as they both have spongy rather than gilled undersides, amongst other similarities. One wild food writer describes the taste of a common Xerocomus as “grist.” As a plus, this can be dealt with by marinating or using sauces, much like flavouring tofu. They grow large and en masse here. Several times last year I came home with a garbage bag full.  Not having much interest in a garbage bag of ‘grist’ for supper, the mushrooms are used in my home for a yellow dye that, mordanted with alum, ranges from buttercream to mustard. Different mordants can change the resulting colour to orange, brown, or green.

Bog myrtle is not really so much an edible as a medicinal and practical plant. Its leaves calm the stomach, make perfume, or act as a hops substitute in brewing beer. The nutlets boiled give off a wax which can be used to make candles. The bark can be used to tan hides and produces an excellent yellow dye for wool. Bog myrtle can induce miscarriage, so avoid ingesting any tea or brew made with it when pregnant.

So now you know. Go forth and forage with a mind on not just food and medicine but also on arts, crafts, and beers. There are many amazing books available on natural dyes, mushroom hunting, and brewing with wild plants. More information on endangered skills like tanning  hides and extracting wax from plant material can be found in the Foxfire book series (highly recommended and including rural life skills from hog dressing to moonshining).  Get yourself a dye pot and go out and explore some real fall colours.

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