Weeds of Late Summer

Summer doesn’t last long in Scotland, and even by the end of July you start to sense the hints of autumn’s arrival. It was this time of year that I first visited Scotland, and I was struck by the contract between here and the south east of England, where it very much high summer.

I was also fascinated by the tall spires of bright pink flowers growing along the roadsides, and I asked my mum what they were. I misheard her answer as ‘purple lucy stripe’, which she thought would have been a lovely name, but no, it’s ‘purple LOOSE STRIFE’, also known as London’s Pride, because it once thrived on the bombsites of the Blitz. But she had mistaken these flowers of Scotland for that more southern plant, though this version also does well on rubble, with an alternative name being ‘fireweed’. It was rosebay willow herb, and ever since I’ve lived up here I look forward to its appearance every late July and August.DSC_0940There’s plenty of the stuff growing along the paths near where I live, so I was pleased to read in Jenny Dean‘s A Heritage of Colour that willow herbs may be used in the dyepot.

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I gathered 200g of the flowering tops, and used them to dye 20g of merino wool mordanted with alum. On the stove it smelt gorgeous! I got a slightly greenish yellow, which became brighter when modified in an alkaline bath, and grey-green when modified with iron.

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On the same foraging trip I also gathered two other varieties of ‘weed’ that I’d noticed springing up recently. One, horsetail, is also mentioned by Jenny Dean and had impressed me with its resilience in growing through even the tiniest of cracks in the pavement.

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When I got home with a bag packed full of the stuff, I realised that we had plenty growing by the fence of our front garden! I used 250g to 25g of merino mordanted with alum, and got very similar results to the willowherb, including with iron and alkaline.

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The third kind of ‘weed’, which covers the nearby red blaes pitches as well as growing all the alongside mine and Rowan’s most well-walked path, I misidentified twice.

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Before it flowered, showing only the frond-like leaves, I though it was yarrow. Then, on the basis of a couple of photos in books, I thought the round yellow flower heads were tansy.

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Having gathered 250g of it, it wasn’t until it was chopped up, covered in boiled water and heated on the stove, that I realised what it really was because I could smell it: chamomile! I’ve never been a great fan of camomile tea to drink myself, but the scent was very familiar from my time working in a cafe (which serves the tea pots of camomile with a cocktail stick so customers can de-clog the spout!).

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I got a much brighter yellow from the chamomile that from the horsetail or willowherb, especially after briefly dipping it in an alkaline modifier.

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It made a nice mossy green after saddening – I never intended for the photo to look like a slug attacking a flower, honest!

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