Symplocos – A Plant Mordant

Symplocos is a plant species that accumulates alum mordant. It is one of number of plants that grows in acidic soil around the world, and thus is able to absorb available aluminum from the ground. Although different parts of the tree absorb alum, it has been determined that the fallen leaves have a high concentrations of alum and are the most sustainable source of mordant. By harvesting the fallen leaves, no damage is done to the tree. These leaves can be used as an alternative and highly effective source of mineral alum, while also imparting a pale yellow color to the fiber. 

One variety of symplocos is native to Indonesia and utilized by weavers and ikat dyers with when dyeing red with morinda (Morinda citrifolia) on cotton. The Bebali Foundation has been studying the mordant process for a number of years and has made symplocos available to dyers around the world, while supporting the local women who gather the leaves. Michel Garcia worked with the foundation to develop recipes for both protein and cellulose fibers. All of these recipes are available online at The Plant Mordant Project.

I have experimented with symplocos many times with great success. Recently I have been introduced to a variety of symplocos  (Sympolocos tinctoria)  that is native to the southeastern United States. It is described as a small tree or shrub, “deciduous or weakly evergreen”. It is also known as “horse sugar” or “sweetleaf” because horses are attracted to the sweet leaves of the plant. As I researched, I read that it grows in “very acidic soils”. It is sometimes described as a source of yellow dye, but nowhere did I read that it was a source of alum. 

Leigh Magar, a textile designer and dyer, brought me a handful of leaves last year that she collected at her home near Charleston, South Carolina. I proceeded to test the leaves as a source of mordant, comparing them to the symplocos that I have from the Bebali Foundation, and also to mineral alum. I ground the leaves and used Michel Garcia’s recipe. The results were very good. 

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Mordant only applied to wash-fast wool knit: 1.) no mordant, 2.) mineral alum mordant, 3.) Bebali symplocos mordant, 4.) South Carolina symplocos mordant
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Weld and madder dyes applied following 1.) no mordant, 2.) mineral alum mordant, 3.) Bebali symplocos, 4.) South Carolina symplocos
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South Carolina leaf on left, compared to the larger symplocos leaf from Bebali. Both leaves were ground fine before applying them to the textile.

Last month I was finally able to travel to Leigh’s home in South Carolina to see the plants myself and to gather some of the leaves. Our regional variety has leaves that are smaller than the Indonesian variety but they are shed in much the same way. The leaves yellow as they age and drop from the tree. They are easily gathered from the tree at this time. Leigh tells me that shedding seems to be more more prevalent in the spring, although the tree sheds its leaves all year long.  

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Older leaves yellow on the tree before falling to the ground

I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Braiding Sweetgrass by Laura Wall Kimmerer. In the chapter entitled The Gift of Strawberries the author talks of wild strawberries as unexpected gifts received from the earth. Finding alum in a plant is very much like a gift – to be received gratefully – but not to be turned into a commodity. I will treasure this gift of alum and appreciate Leigh’s generosity in sharing it,  but it will not replace the mineral alum that I purchase from a supplier.

 

And a couple notes on our book: The Art and Science of Natural Dyes. First of all, I am very appreciative of the many notes and emails I have received from so many of you. It is exciting to both Joy and me that the book is finally out and truly being used. 

There is one important omission on pages 169 and 170. The mordants used for the photos of the dyed samples should cross reference mordants #1 – #5 (top to bottom), from the mordant mixing chart on p.150.

 

p 169 corretion

And about the spiral binding – we chose the binding very intentionally so that the book would open easily and stay open. The book is meant to be used, referred to, and likely to get stained, like a much used cookbook. Many of you have told me how much you love the binding but I have also heard from a few of you that pages can easily slip out of that spiral. A dyer in Australia showed me a perfect solution; she threaded a piece of cotton yarn through the binding, locking the pages in. I have now done this to my own book and would suggest that you do it to yours as well. 

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