Mistress Sadira leading a weedwalk in the Barony of Thescorre. Photo by Baroness Katja
The Weedwalks are a long-standing tradition at the Pennsic War: every morning at 10 a.m. class-goers can meet up with a teacher and walk around Pennsic getting a lesson in the local vegetation.
Because the teacher changes with each day, a student can find different plants, a different location, or different information depending on the teacher.
The Pennsic Weedwalks as they are today are operated by Master Emrys Eustace, known as “Broom” (Joe Marfice) and Mistress Sadira bint Wassouf (Patricia Chakalis). Sadira is the queen of all things botanical, and although not the first to lead weedwalks at Pennsic, her incarnation is the longest surviving.
“I originally learned from a man called Whitefeather, who may have been the first to do official weedwalks at Pennsic. My first Pennsic was #11 (1982) and as I recall there were two classes: Water-bearing/Chirurgeon training or battles and the weedwalk. (Not sure if there were others or if these were the only two I wanted to attend). I began leading walks after a person from another state led a walk, making several serious misidentifications.”
“I was ever so grateful when Master Broom started organizing the consortium, because I had done weedwalks for quite a few years before that and was feeling the strain of huge groups of people who wanted more.”
Master Broom agrees. “I only took over from her when she was getting tired of doing many daily walks, and then mundane matters took her away from Pennsic.” Later, Master Broom organized the weedwalks into a consortium with multiple teachers. He insists, “I am merely the organizer; (the teachers) all are the reason the Weed Walks exist.”
Sadira loved it: “I came back in 2014 to this lovely consortium and all their creativity. What a gift!”
Other teachers have included Raziya bint Rusa (Elizabeth Burdick), Juliane Bechaumpe (Ann Fairhurst), Rue (Jen Sadler), and Layla Al-Zarqa (Kelley Morgan).
How easy it is to “know” something, to know something so well that you grew up knowing that that is the way it is.
But what happens when popular thought turns out not to be so cut and dried, when other alternatives are more appropriate in a different situation?
Myrica pensylvanica, Northern bayberry or wax berry (hence the waxy-grey coating).
Listen to the tale of bayberry, an innocuous shrub from the Myricacaea family and native to American soil. Most familiar to those here is the Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), especially to Colonial re-enactors and homesteaders, because of the wax coating on the outside of the fruit that can be boiled off and used to make candles. (Combs)
And listen to the tale of bayberries, used by European medieval and Renaissance cooks, brewers, and physicians for their flavor and mild antiseptic qualities.
Now for the Million Dollar Question: what’s with this name?
Take, for instance, the following recipe by William Harrison in his 1577 Description of Elizabethan England. It mentions both “arras” and “bayberries” as botanical ingredients.
[much detail on the different steps of (partigyle) mashing…] Finally, when she setteth her drink together, she addeth to her brackwoort or charwoort half an ounce of arras, and half a quarter of an ounce of bayberries, finely powdered, and then, putting the same into her woort, with a handful of wheat flour, she proceedeth in such usual order as common brewing requireth. Some, instead of arras and bays, add so much long pepper only, but, in her opinion and my liking, it is not so good as the first, and hereof we make three hogsheads of good beer.
Neither ingredient is normally found in a modern kitchen, so more research is prudent.
A quick post in a SCAdian cooking forum came up with the suggestion for the first mystery of orris root, by way of the 1872 A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words “a kind of powder, probably made of the orris-root.”
Other Google hits confirmed this possibility, but also that not even academics know its identification for sure. As the characteristics of orris root (Iris sp.) fit within the function in this recipe − the roots contain myristic acid (Grieve) making the powder mildly antiseptic and thus promote the durability of the concentrated malt syrup (called brackwoort or charwoort) − orris root is a plausible answer.
A similar post in this forum asking about the definition of the second mystery, bayberries, found a different response.
To my surprise, bayberry turns out to be a common shrub in the United States, and to my even larger surprise, it is part of the Myrica family.
I should explain: I recently finished a Compleat Anachronist on the Low Country herbal ale called gruit, which includes both Myrica gale and the berries of the Laurel nobilis, or the berries of the bay, called in Dutch and German bakelaar. The forum discussion suggested that all bayberries like wax berries are shrubs of the genus Myrica, and thus in the case of European sources, the European Myrica, which is Myrica gale, also known as sweet gale and bog myrtle. When I questioned this interpretation because of inconsistencies with contemporary sources, no one in the forum was able to provide further help. It was only because I had just spent a year researching the historic European side of a similar story that my curiosity was piqued.
So, if nothing else, let my ‘obsession’ be a point of learning for you! In the rest of this story, I will walk you step by step through my thought process, which led me to the appropriate answer.
Myrica gale, sweet gale catkins.
Question one: What are the medieval descriptors for the term in question?
When tackling a challenging botanical identification like this I have a found a number of useful sources to check. Since I want to know what the medieval European definition is − not the modern and often American definition given on Wikipedia − I like to proceed in this manner:
The search query ‘bayberr*’ found 45 records in EEBO, a combination of husbandry (veterinarian), chemistry, and medicinal manuals, with a few brewing and household entries. Checking one by one uncovered the following hints regarding its identity:
The 1653 Pharmacopœia Londinensis mentions: “Oyl of Bays. Take of Bay-berries ripe, and newly gathered…” and “Unguentum Laurinum commune. Take of Bay leaves bruised, … Bay berries bruised …”
The 1578 (?) Orders, thought meete by her Maiestie mentions: “An excellent Medicine made without charges.: Take of the powder of good Bayberries, the huske taken awaye from them, before they be dried, a spooneful.”
Pliny the Elder (1634 edition) mentions that “Oliues, Bayberries, Walnuts and Almonds, haue a fattie liquor in them.”
The charitable physitian with the Charitable apothecary of 1633 mentions: “Bayberries the pound 006 Mirtle Berries the pound 010.”
At first, I thought mirtle to mean bog myrtle fruit, although I was confused as to why those would be called berries (they are more akin to seeds or cones). Then I realized another mirtle was meant, the Myrtus from the Bible, with berries quite similar to those of the laurel.
Myrtus communis, Mirtle berries
Conclusion one: This rough check of easily available literature indicates that United Kingdom bayberries are associated with bay (leaves), can be husked before they are dried, contain a fatty liquid, and are listed next to myrtle berries, indicating a probable visual similarity.
Bog myrtle fruits (Myrica gale) are technically not a berry, they are catkins of ingrown flower petals and seed, and cannot be husked. They come pretty much dried right off the bush, do not contain a waxy nor a fatty substance, and have no visual similarity to myrtle berries. On the other hand, the berries of the Laurel fit all these descriptors.
An observation: while the shrub is called bayberry (singular) and many of the herbal ingredients are listed as singular botanicals, bayberries are invariably listed as plural. Linguistically, this suggests it is not a generic term (the bayberry), but indicates a specific part of the plant (the berries of the bay; bay berries). The spelling also varies, from bayberries to bay-berries and bay berries.
Interestingly, when this information was shared with the medieval cooking forum many of the participants were not convinced. The information was found interesting, but bayberry is bayberry, and while I thought the contemporary information was quite convincing, it did not change their opinion. It was time to dig even deeper.
Step two: Check a dictionary. When researching English language words, the Medieval English Dictionary or MED, hosted by the University of Michigan, has proven very useful.
The MED lookups had no hits with “bayberry” or variants, and no hits for sweet gale or variants, but it did have an entry for “laurel.”
(a) The European laurel tree, bay tree (Laurus nobilis); ~ tre; beries of ~, ~ baies, fruit of the laurel, laurel berries; […]
bai(e (n.) Also (error) boi-.
The berry-like fruit of various plants, trees, or shrubs (including the laurel, olive, rose, nightshade).
(a) Specif., the fruit of the laurel tree (Laurus nobilis); ~ berie; (b) the laurel tree; ~ tre; ~ leves, laurel leaves; (c) oil de bai(es [see quot.: a1500]; (d) pouder of baies.
Conclusion two: According to the MED, bai(e) berie is the fruit of the laurel tree. Apparently, bayberry means “berry berry.”
Laurus nobilis, Laurel berries.
Step three: Check the etymology of the word. Etymology Online is a good place to start, and if you have access, the Oxford English Dictionary is even better.
“fruit of the bay tree,” 1570s, from bay (n.4) + berry. In Jamaica, the name given to a type of myrtle (Pimenta acris), 1680s, from which bay-rum (1832) is made.
laurel shrub (Laurus nobilis, source of the bay-leaf), late 14c., but meaning originally only the berry, from Old French baie (12c.) “berry, seed,” from Latin baca, bacca “berry, fruit of a tree or shrub, nut” (source also of Spanish baya, Old Spanish bacca, Italian bacca “a berry”), a word of uncertain origin. Extension of the word to the shrub itself is from 1520s. The leaves or sprigs were woven as wreaths for conquerors or poets, hence “honorary crown or garland bestowed as a prize for victory or excellence” (1560s). Bay-leaf is from 1630s. Bay-berry (1570s) was coined after the sense of the original word had shifted to the tree.
The OED gives a little bit more historic background:
Bayberry: (ˈbeɪˌbɛrɪ) [f. bay n.1 2]
1.1 The fruit of the bay-tree.
1578 Lyte Dodoens 688 Called in Latine Lauri baccæ, in English Bay berries. 1747 Gentl. Mag. XVII. 409 Take of aniseed‥bay-berries, myrrh‥of each half an ounce.
2.2 In U.S., the fruit of the Wax-myrtle (Myrica cerifera), and the plant itself, an American shrub that bears a berry covered with a wax-like coating.
1687 in Manchester (Mass.) Rec. 32 The sd. tree being near Vincsons baiberry medow. 1769 Massachusetts Gaz. 21 Dec., Advt. (Th.), Bayberry-wax candles. 1792 J. Belknap New Hampsh. III. 123 The bay berry (myrica cerifera), the leaves of which yield an agreeable perfume, and the fruit a delicate green wax, which is made into candles. 1860 Bartlett Dict. Amer. s.v., The berries when boiled in water yield a fragrant green wax, known as bayberry tallow, used for making candles, etc. 1878 R. Thompson Gard. Assist. (Moore) 657/1 Myrica cerifera, candleberry, bay-berry, or wax-myrtle.—Very near the sweet-gale.
3.3 In Jamaica, the fruit of the ‘Bayberry Tree,’ Eugenia acris, a species of Pimento.
1756 P. Browne Jamaica 247 The Bayberry Tree‥The berries resemble our cloves, both in form and flavour.
Conclusion three: Both etymological dictionaries link the word bayberry to laurel berries (Laurus nobilis) first, followed by the Jamaican bayberry tree (Eugenia acris). The OED indicates a separation of definition by giving a US-specific definition for the fruit of the Wax-myrtle (Myrica cerifera), bringing us back to the Myrica family. And while it indicates the bayberry is “very near the sweet gale,” it does not list it as identical. This connection to Myrica gives rise to my second question.
Question two: What is this connection between bayberry and sweet gale?
When I looked at the easily available sources, such as Wikipedia (Wiki/Myrica), the information seems to be pretty clear:
Myrica /mɪˈraɪkə/ is a genus of about 35–50 species of small trees and shrubs in the family Myricaceae, order Fagales. The genus has a wide distribution, including Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America, and missing only from Australia. Some botanists split the genus into two genera on the basis of the catkin and fruit structure, restricting Myrica to a few species, and treating the others in Morella. Common names include bayberry, bay-rum tree, candleberry, sweet gale, and wax-myrtle.
At first glance, this seems to indicate a connection between bayberry and sweet gale (Myrica gale). But when the specific Wikipedia page for Myrica gale (Wiki/Myrica_gale) was checked, no such connection was found.
Something that caught my eye was that most, if not all, of the Myrica species with bayberry as a common name are native to the US. And I wondered, maybe those botanists listed in the Wiki/Myrica page are not that far off, splitting the genus on basis of the catkin (a.i. Myrica gale) and fruit (a.i. Myrica cerifera and M. pensylvanica); it seems the name bayberry is not only connected to the US natives but also to the species bearing fruit. In Europe, the only Myrica used in brewing is Myrica gale or sweet gale, which has catkins.
To check American plants, I find the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to be helpful. This database also divides the family Myricacea, the family of bayberries, into Morella and Myrica. It only lists two Myricas, Myrica hartwegii as Sierra bayberry (US) and Myrica gale (US & EU) as sweet gale, with no bayberry variants. This matches the Wiki/Myrica_gale information, which lists sweet gale as the US term and bog myrtle as the UK term for Myrica gale, with no bayberry variants.
Conclusion two: In modern US English, bayberry indicates several species of the bayberry family Myricacea native to the US. US bayberries mostly bear fruit, not catkins. While Myrica gale is part of the bayberry family, even in the US, the term bayberry does not apply to Myrica gale. Only Myrica gale was used in European brewing. Myrica gale is called sweet gale in the US and bog myrtle in the UK, and many other names in other countries. In languages such as Dutch and German, there is no confusion in terminology. For instance, in Dutch, gagel is bog myrtle, and bakelaar (historic; from baccae lauri) and laurierbessen (modern) are the berries of the laurel.
Question three: Would bayberry therefore mean something else in modern US than it would in medieval UK?
The information points to a double meaning for the word bayberry. In modern US, the term bayberry indicates several species of Myrica (or Morella) shrubs. In medieval UK, the term bayberries points to the berries of the bay laurel tree.
Another way to check this theory would be to look at the same term (bayberry), in the same era (16th c) used in the same context (the brewing of beer) but in a different language. From my research into medieval gruit ale, I had already come across both ingredients bog myrtle and laurel berries and found that within the Dutch and German sources these ingredients would be indicated with non-matching terms.
Variants for Bog myrtle in Latin, Dutch and German include: custum, costus, Herba Myrti Rabanitini, Gale palustris, gagel, gaghel, Myrtus Brabantica, Brabantsche mirt, myrtenheide (myrtle heather), mirtedoorn, post, possem.
Variants for Laurel berries in Latin, French, Dutch and German include: Bacca laureus, baca lauri, Lauri baccæ, bakeleers, baekelaers, bakelaar, Beckeler, laurus, laurusboom, lauwerbessie, bayes de Laurier, graines de Laurier, laurier, Lorbeerbaum, Lorbeeren.
For instance, Eenen Nyeuwen Coock Boeck (1511) mentions the following ingredients in the recipe To make gruit and gruitbeer: “Neemt tegen eenen pot een koren bakelaer (laurel berries), ende alsoo veel aipoys (much resin), ende wat haveren doppen (some oatbran), ende twee saykens van gagel (two bog myrtle catkins).”
Conclusion: In Dutch and German medieval brewing, both ingredients, bog myrtle and laurel berries, were used side by side; they were both found to have preservative properties in the brewing of beer. It thus makes sense from a technical point of view that the UK word bayberries, used in the same time and in the same context, also is appropriate as the berries of the bay laurel.
The final step: Check the contemporary herbals.
Dioscorides — whose first century De Materia Medica was the basis for all European herbals until the 17th century — seems to be talking about Laurel bay: “Laurus nobilis — Sweet Bay, Laurel, Roman Laurel. L aurinum is made from overripe bay berries (which are ready to fall from the tree) […]”
Bald’s Leechbook, also known as Medicinale Anglicum, is an old English medical text written in Latin and probably compiled in the ninth century. There are various manuscripts of the original text, using various terms and spellings for the different ingredients. The berries of the bay laurel tree are mentioned several times, both as ‘laurescroppan,’ which in Old English could mean either the fruit, or a bunch or cluster (of leaves), and as ‘baccas lauri‘ (as well as baccae lauri, baccarum lauri). The latter term means ‘berries [of the] laurel’ and is the genesis of the middle Dutch and German term bakelaar, and the English bay berries.
Gerard Dewes, in his A Nievve Herball or Historie of Plantes from 1578, has the following to say about the bay laurel:
The bay is called … in Latine, Laurus; in high Douche (High German) lorbeerbaum: in base Almaigne (Low German, Dutch), Laurus boom: in Englishe, Bay or Laurel tree.
The fruit is called in Latine, Lauri baccae; in English, Bay beries; in French Bayes or Graines de Laurier: in high Douche, Lorbeeren: in base Almaigne Bakeleers.
This is also found verbatim in John Gerard’s The herball or Generall historie of plantes, 1597.
Conclusion: In 16th century England, the term bayberries indicated the fruit of the bay laurel.
In modern US context, the term bayberry means several species of the Myricacaea family, including Myrica cerifera and Myrica pensylvanica.
In medieval UK context, the term bayberries meant the berries of the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis).
It is my suspicion, and the dates of the etymology of the term seem to support this, that European immigrants to America brought the term bayberries with them. With the absence of local laurel berries the term transferred to the next best thing, a native aromatic shrub with berries visually similar and of similar household qualities.
A side note: the juice of the Chinese Myrica rubra is fermented into alcoholic beverages, among other uses. It is not clear to me if, apart from Myrica gale, any of the other Myrica’s are or have been used in brewing beer.
Myrica rubra, also known as Yumberry™
So… what should we take from all this?
I think it is good to be reminded that language is fluid, it changes with the times, and words and definitions change with it.
It was only because of my previous research and my European background that I questioned the definition of this term. While bog myrtle and laurel berries are used for similar preservative properties in brewing, they both have unique flavors which could change the outcome of the final brew.
In our efforts to emulate pre-1600 recipes it would be a shame if our modern assumptions got in the way of our experimental cooking & brewing!
Thank you, Baroness Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina, for double-checking my findings, and finding even more sources.
By Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn
As a mother, and brewer, I was unsurprisingly asked (begged) by my kid to help him make root beer. We both quite like the taste of root beer, and the idea of going on a root-and-herb scavenger hunt in the back swamp spoke to both of us! The cunning plan was to have the kid enter his root beer in a brewing competition and thus he had to know at least some of its early history. But – how period is root beer? The two ingredients most often mentioned to make root beer are sarsaparilla and sassafras, so let’s first take a look at those.
Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata) was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the Spaniards, first from Mexico and later from Honduras. Mexico, Central America and many parts of northern South America abound in various species of sarsaparilla, valued by the natives for their, more or less, medicinal qualities. The natives value its nourishing and healing qualities so much they would drive their cattle to areas where it grew in abundance in order to feed on the plants and receive its benefits.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) was a well-known plant to the natives of the southwestern United States way before the Europeans came around. It had many purposes, including cooking (to flavor bear fat, to cure meat) and medicinal.
The European interest in sassafras brought Europeans into closer contact with the Native Americans during the early years of settlement in 16th and 17th century Florida, Virginia and parts of the Northeast. Early European settlers enjoyed the aromatic scent of sassafras – according to legend, Christopher Columbus finally found land because he could smell the sassafras! As early as the 1560s, French visitors to North America discovered the medicinal qualities of sassafras, as well as the Spanish who arrived in Florida.
Sassafras trees were reported as plentiful at the arrival of the English on the coast of Northeast. Sassafras bark was sold in England and in continental Europe where it was made into a dark beverage called ‘saloop’ – touted to have medicinal qualities and used as a medicinal cure for a variety of ailments. This refreshing beverage was sold in place of tea and coffee, which were much more expensive, and was served in a similar way with milk and sugar.
Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest to bring sassafras to England in 1586, and Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to commercially export sassafras in 1602. Since the bark was the most commercially valued part of the sassafras plant due to large concentrations of the aromatic safrole oil, the trees would be stripped of their bark – which kills the tree.
This meant that as significant amounts of sassafras bark were harvested, supplies quickly diminished and sassafras became more difficult to find. For example, while one of the first shipments of sassafras in 1602 weighed as much as a ton, by 1626, the English colonists failed to meet their 30-pound quota. Unfortunately, over-harvesting is not a modern invention.
Martin Pring; in his own words (1603):
“In all these places we found no people, but signes of fires where they had beene. Howbeit we beheld very goodly Groves and Woods replenished with tall Okes, Beeches, Pine-trees, Firre-trees, Hasels, Wich-hasels and Maples. We saw here also sundry sorts of Beasts, as Stags, Deere, Beares, Wolves, Foxes, Lusernes, and Dogges with sharpe noses. But meeting with no Sassafras, we left these places with all the foresaid Ilands, shaping our course for Savage Rocke discovered the yeere before by Captaine Gosnold, where going upon the Mayne we found people, with whom we had no long conversation, because here also we could find no Sassafras. De-parting hence 3 we bare into that great Gulfe which Captaine Gosnold over-shot the yeere before, coasting and finding people on the North side thereof. […] Bancroft, following Belknap, identifies Whitson’s Bay with the harbor of Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, which is in the latitude of 41° 25g. […]and finding a pleasant Hill thereunto adjoyning, we called it Mount Aldworth, for Master Robert Aldworths sake a chiefe furtherer of the Voyage, as well with his Purse as with his travell. Here we had sufficient quantitie of Sassafras.”
Is root beer period plausible?
What this rather long introduction means is that both main root beer flavors – sarsaparilla and sassafras – were known in 16th century Europe, and at least sassafras was used in a drinkable medicinal concoction in Europe. Unfortunately, it was not (yet) fermented… The tradition of brewing, or fermenting, root beer is thought to have evolved out of other European small beer traditions that produced fermented drinks with very low alcohol content. These were thought to be healthier to drink than possibly tainted local sources of drinking water, and enhanced by the medicinal and nutritional qualities of the ingredients used. For instance, the 14th century recipe Tizanne Doulce (like a tisane, or infusion) uses barley, licorice root and crystal sugar to make a root beer-like beverage.
Le Ménagier de Paris, 1393
TIZANNE DOULCE. Take water and boil it, then for each sester [the sester of 8 pints] of water put in a bowl heaped with barley, and it matters not if it be hulls and all, and two parisis [2 1/2d.] worth of liquorice, item, figs, and let it be boiled till the barley bursts; then let it be strained through two or three pieces of linen, and in each goblet put great plenty of crystallised sugar. Then the barley is good to give to poultry to eat to fatten them. Note that the good liquorice is the newest and it is a fresh greenish colour, and the old is more faded and dead and is dry.
Roots, bark, resin, fruits & flowers
For our recreation, we chose roots, barks and leaves that either grew in the back yard (our property adjoins a New York State Protected Wetland, so plenty of bio-diversity) or we already had in the kitchen cupboards. Even though I met someone via Facebook who lived in the South and had a sassafras tree in his backyard and was willing to ship rootstock, unfortunately, facebook ate the conversation and he was never heard from again… so this time around, at least, no period-correct Southern grown sassafras. We substituted with black birch, as that has a root beer typical wintergreen-like flavor, and spicebush (right). We went on a scavenger hunt and gathered as much as we could from the back yard and surrounding property. Ironically, it is in our modern middle Ages not possible to buy fresh, green licorice, therefore we’ll have to do with the ‘dead’ dry stuff. The kid made name cards to label each baggie of ingredients.
0.6 oz black birch bark
0.6 oz spicebush bark
0.3 oz licorice root
0.3 oz dandelion root
0.3 oz birch bark
0.3 oz black cherry bark (included resin)
0.3 oz juniper berries
1 tbs hops flowers
1 tbs ginger root
1 cinnamon stick
2 ½ quart water
1 cup sugar (brown sugar)
1 yeast starter (ale yeast, reclaimed from a perry).
Then it was time to brew! He scraped the bark off the wintergreen and spicebush twigs. He chopped the dandelion root and grated the ginger root. He broke the birch bark, the cherry bark and the dried licorice root into little pieces. He picked the juniper berries from between the greens. And crushed the cinnamon stick. Mom got homegrown hops from the freezer (he’s not touching the hops supply). He measured everything on the scale, and added it all to the big sauce pot. He measured and added the 2 ½ quarts of water. Turned on the stove, and brought it up to a boil. When boiling, it was turned down to a simmer, to simmer for 20 minutes. When done, mom put the pot in the sink in cold water to cool. The infusion was left to sit overnight.
The rootbeer stock, ready to infuse in water.
The next day, he poured some reclaimed ale yeast into a 1 gallon carboy, and poured the infusion – through a filter – into the same carboy. He added 1 cup of sugar, for the yeast. He then shook the carboy well to dissolve all the sugar, and carefully poured the infusion into his recycled fliptop soda bottles. They were left in a warm place to start fermentation. They will stay out for a few days at the most, or until carbonation is visible, and then be refrigerated to stop/slow down the yeast.
Ready for bottling!
A table showing the different botanicals that can be used in root-beer (X marks the ones we used):
Roots and herbs
Sassafras albidum – roots, leaves, bark
Pimenta dioica – allspice
Smilax ornata – sarsaparilla
Lindera benzoin – spicebush (bark/berries)
Smilax glyciphylla – sweet sarsaparilla
Juniperus communis – juniper berries
Piper auritum – root beer plant
Trigonella foenum-graecum – fenugreek
Glycyrrhiza glabra – liquorice (root)
Myroxylon balsamum – Tolu balsam
Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
Abies balsamea – balsam fir
Gaultheria procumbens – wintergreen (leaves and berries)
Myristica fragrans – nutmeg
Betula lenta – sweet birch (sap/syrup/resin)
Cinnamomum verum – cinnamon (bark)
Betula nigra – black birch (sap/syrup/resin/bark)
Cinnamomum aromaticum – cassia (bark)
Prunus serotina – black cherry (resin/bark)
Syzygium aromaticum – clove
Picea rubens – red spruce (tips)
Foeniculum vulgare – fennel (seed)
Picea mariana – black spruce
Zingiber officinale – ginger (stem/rhizome)
Picea sitchensis – Sitka spruce
Illicium verum – star anise
Arctium lappa – burdock (root)
Pimpinella anisum – anise
Taraxacum officinale – dandelion (root)
Humulus lupulus – hops (bells/flowers)
Mentha species – mint
Hordeum vulgare – barley (malted)
Hypericum perforatum – St. John’s wort
Note: black birch and the evergreen Gaultheria are both sources for the scent wintergreen.
Note: while in medieval European brewing Juniperus communis was used, as we have several mature trees of Juniperus virginiana we used that instead. Like its European counterpart, Virginian juniper is also used to flavor gin.
Medieval European plausibility of our chosen ingredients: [yes / no]
black birch bark
eastern North America
eastern North America
native to Eurasia and North America
native to Eurasia and North America
black cherry bark
eastern North America, Central America
native to Eurasia and North America
introduced to northern Europe in the 9th century
native to southern Europe and parts of Asia
exported to EU via India in the first century AD
exported to EU via Africa (Egypt) from Sri Lanka
Legenda – wh: wild harvested; hg: home grown; cs: commercially sourced
neither of us liked the licorice after-taste. Next time we’ll also add burdock, and maybe some mint, or anise – and less of the licorice.
only add a little bit of lees. There is plenty of yeast in even a little bit to start fermentation
when using commercial dry (bread) yeast, a pinch to each bottle is enough.
as soon as vigorous carbonation is visible on the outside of the bottles, refrigerate.
just in case, have a large container ready when opening the flip-top to catch any overly-carbonated blow-out.
fermented root beer will go alcoholic eventually – keep an eye on the brew so the kids don’t get too frisky.
alcoholic root beer tastes good too!
And as Sir Kenelme Digby so aptly adviced, in his slightly post-period brewing cornucopia:
“You may use what Herbs or Roots you please, either for their tast or vertue…”
By Baroness Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina (Chris Adler-France)
Grimmy loves his new coat from Baroness Helene. Photo by Baroness Ekaterina.
Come on, you know you want to join the Æthelmearc Artisan Exchange!
You, creating that awesome, intriguing, engrossing, fun, beautiful art form.
Sign up to make it – whether an art form you’ve been developing for years or something you just started delving into, whether woodworking, sewing, brewing, metal smithing, leather working, cooking, etc. – for someone else.
Then reap the joy of that person receiving it, while you receive a personalized gift in return from another talented artisan in our kingdom.
What is the Artisan Exchange?
Unlike A&S competition, displays, classes, or other common artisan-oriented activities that are often competitive and scary to new artisans, the Exchange encourages artisans of all levels and abilities simply to practice an existing skill or explore a new one while creating something within roughly three months’ timeframe (and with a $25 limit on materials, not including shipping costs) for a fellow artisan in the exchange, at the end of which they will receive a gift in turn from another artisan. As in modern Secret Santa exchanges, only the Exchange coordinator knows which artisans she has matched up until the gifts are mailed and the effusive thanks begin. Artisans of all ages, skill levels, genders, etc. participate and the created items do not all have to be documented period items.
History of the Exchanges
Originally created as a Noblesse Largesse swap in Calontir by Lady Konstantia Kaloethina and HL Aline Swynbrook, those founders encouraged gentles in other kingdoms to use and expand the idea. Baroness Oddkatla Jonsdottir learned about the East Kingdom’s Swap (and then Exchange) while a resident of that kingdom and enjoyed participating in 10 exchanges over four years there: knitting shawls, painting and embroidering messenger bags and a Norman cloak, and sewing a silk banner and a Skoldhammim hood.
When she and her husband, Baron Friderich Swartzwalder, became citizens of Greater AEthelmearc a few years ago and began playing in the Nithgaard/Abhainn Ciach Ghlais area, she wanted to join our kingdom’s Exchange, which had been coordinated in 2013 by Janice Mullins Wagoner.
“I saw the amazing art being made in the East’s group, and knew that AE had or has many very talented artisans,” Her Excellency explained.
Block-printed feast gear bags from Mistress Fredeberg to Baroness Helene. Photo by Baroness Helene.
When Janice stepped down and offered the Exchange to Baroness Oddkatla, she talked to the Calontir founders for guidance with the process and forms and began coordinating the project in Fall 2015, which finished by Kingdom Twelfth Night in January 2016.
“The first exchange was very well received, and we had about 40 artisans participate. I try to have a new exchange start within about a month to six weeks after the previous on ends. Most of the time it works out to be two exchanges a year. Someday, maybe I can get a third one in or have two different exchanges running at the same time.”
At the beginning of each Exchange, Her Excellency asks participants to join the project’s Facebook group and fill out a survey detailing the participant’s home group, persona, color preferences, favorite activities, and art interests. After receiving all the surveys, Baroness Oddkatla randomly matches each artisan with another and privately sends each artisan the survey information for their matched artisan. She checks in frequently with the artisans via the Facebook group (and private emails, if necessary) on the progress and nudges everyone into mailing or personally handing every gift by the Exchange deadline.
The Exchange is primarily coordinated on the Facebook group, but Her Excellency notes that artisans do not need to be a Facebook member to join the Exchange; they can participate via email.
What outcome did you hope for the Exchange – just a fun Secret Santa gift swap or something more?
“When I first thought about starting an Exchange in AE, I had the dream of getting people together in a fun way to make and share art, whether the participant was a new person to the SCA or a Laurel who had years of making and creating art. The fun part (in my mind) was the fact that no one knew who was making the art for you. When I was taking part in the East Kingdom exchange, one of the best parts was anticipating what might arrive in the mail at the end of the exchange.”
How has the exchange changed/evolved since you began this?
“The exchange has grown by leaps and bounds since we first started. The Facebook group has 296 members with more artisans asking to join every swap. The first swap had 40 artisans and the more recent exchange that finished in December 2017 had 70.”
So far, 50 participants have joined the one that is in the survey stage right now. Baroness Oddkatla is hoping for 70 participants.
Woven belt/trim by Lady Zianna for Lady Catherine O’Herlihy. Photo by Lady Catherine.
What has gone well and was has been a challenge?
“The amazing creativity AE artisans have (has gone well)! A challenge has been getting the gifts delivered in a timely manner. One of the things about the exchange that dismays me is the need for extra time at the end of the exchange, as some need more time to finish. One of my goals is to have everyone mail their gifts on the scheduled mailing date. Usually, the extensions are given as an artisan has a “fail” and needs more time to finish. Please don’t misunderstand, most people mail on the date, and only a few need extensions.”
What have been some of the themes of past exchanges and what is the current one?
“Themes in the exchange have been varied. The first one was a Twelfth Night theme, with the gifts being something fancy that could be worn or used at Twelfth night. Themes since then have been “Spring/Camping” where each artisan was asked in the survey if they would like to receive a spring- or a camping-themed gift. The theme of the exchange that we just completed was “Heraldry,” and each artisan was asked to make a gift using their recipient’s arms or colors, or if the artisan did not have heraldry, the recipient’s household or Kingdom arms were used.
“This new exchange is a repeat of a past exchange called a “RED/WHITE” exchange. What this means is that the artisan can pick either the RED or WHITE part of the swap. RED gifts must be made with period methods, have documentation, and the dollar amount for supplies can be more than $25. WHITE gifts stick to the original rules of $25 being the top end of the amount each artisan can spend on supplies and no documentation or period methods necessary. Other than that nothing special needs to be done.”
What are some of the most notable gifts you’ve seen made?
“Every gift that is made is very special! I have a few favorites, from all the different exchanges. Some memorable ones are the amazing painted box Abigail Kelhoge made for Anna Leigh, inspired by an illumination; a blackwork embroidered coif Rhys Penbras ap Dafydd made for Elisabeth Johanna von der Flossenburg; and the angel gift Rynea von Lingen made for Astridr Vigodottir, known as Ashling.
Painted box by Lady Abigail Kelhoge for Countess Anna Leigh. Photo by Countess Anna.
“There are many, many gifts I love, way too many to list here!
“You’re probably wondering what an Angel gift is? An Angel gift gets made when an artisan cannot complete their gift. I put out a call for someone to make a gift, and then when I get an angel, I send them the information they need and they make a gift for the artisan that did not get a gift due to their artisan not being able to finish their gift.
“I make sure that everyone who joins to make a gift gets a gift. I feel that every artisan needs to be able to have something to show for the hard work they have done.”
How much time each week during the exchange do you spend coordinating this and what is involved on your end? Is anyone else involved in the coordination?
“There is a fair amount of work that I do to get the exchange up and running. Starting with writing and developing a survey all the artisans must take to be included in the exchange. After the surveys have been taken and it has been closed, when I have the number of artisans that I need to run the exchange, the real work begins. I take each artisan and give them a number, and then using a blind draw, I assign artisan to artisan. Then I send each artisan an email with their recipient in the email. I ask each artisan to send me an email back so that I know they have received their artisan’s name and survey information.
“At this point, the progress of the exchange is up to the artisans. My part slows down a bit as I just make sure I am a cheerleader to keep people motivated and working. I let everyone know that I am here to answer their questions. One of the rules is that no one contact their recipient. If they need help for something they would like to know, they need to contact me either by email or private message on Facebook.
“I put in about 20 to 30 hours at the beginning getting the exchange started and then about two hours a week answering questions from artisans. When the gifts are due to be mailed, I do a bit more making sure that artisans have mailed their gifts. I ask that they send me a photo of their mailing receipt, so that I know their gift has been mailed; there’s a bit more work if anyone asks for extensions. By the end of the exchange, I’m usually putting in anywhere from four to six hours a week. I am the sole person running the AE Artisan Exchange. I have had people ask if I need help, which I usually thank them for, but decline. “
What are your future plans or hopes for this exchange?
“I hope the exchange will continue to grow, and that AE continues to show how talented her artisans are. “
Quiver by Lord Wladislaw Poznanski.
When is the deadline for the current one?
“Deadline to mail this Exchange’s gift is April 15, 2018. Deadline to withdraw from the Exchange is March 1, 2018, barring last-minute major project failure, for which an extension may be granted. If for any reason you need to bow out of an Exchange it must be done via the Gmail account, not Facebook message.”
What do you say to artisans who are intrigued but unsure about participating?
“I tell people who contact me about participating in the exchange, that they may have doubts about playing with us, but each and every one of us can art. We each have special talents that I know are there, and that all they have to do is fill out a survey, and ask questions. I turn NO ONE AWAY!!! Everyone is welcome, and I will make sure they have help if they think they may not do as well as others that participate in the exchange.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
“This is a lot of fun! I have made many new friends, and encourage all that may have an interest to come and join us!”
The obscure ingredient Gillyflower as used in medieval culinary & cosmetic recipes. By Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn.
As part of my interest in medieval soap-making, I come across some rather strange and unusual ingredients. Some only look strange at first glance as the medieval word has undergone modernization. Some describe ingredients no longer used in this way, either because they are hard to mass-produce, or because they are now known to be detrimental to our health. Every unknown ingredient I come across digging through countless medicinal and cosmetic soap recipes is carefully checked out, and these sometimes obvious, often times obscure ingredients are compiled in my Glossary for future reference.
For example, when using Google Translate to translate muschio, its first hit will be moss. While plausible, when looking at the word in context of the recipe, it is unlikely moss was added as a scrub. What was meant here was the scent musk, a much more appropriate addition as the recipe came from a book about perfumery.
Same with fate poluere – when put into Google Translate it comes up as fairies’ dust… Would we really think renaissance Italians caught fairies, dried them, ground them up, and made such good soap Mona Lisa literally seems to glow? I’d like to, though it does seem more likely it is only an older way of spelling fare polvere which means to make into dust, making a whole lot more sense considering the rest of the recipe…
Then what about the botanical garofano? When looked up in the 1611 medieval Italian to medieval English dictionary the Florio, the translation given for garofano (garofani) is both cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) and gillyflower, also called carnation (Dianthus caryphyllus), and leaves the matter up for interpretation. Gillyflower as an ingredient makes an appearance in several non-English language soap recipes, including the Italian Notandissimi and the Dutch Dat Batement van Recepten. My curiosity was piqued, but a conclusive period source for either interpretation was nowhere to be found. The 1771 Encyclopedia Brittanica gives the alternate name clove pink for carnation, indicating some sort of connection between clove and carnation. But while it mentions the term gillyflower can be any of several flowering plant species, the spice clove is not listed among them. If they truly are two different plant species, then how can gillyflower mean both in medieval texts?
Scadian Italian cosmetics enthusiast Giata (Gigi Coulson) translated this intriguing recipe from Caterina Sforza to treat horrible breath, to include cloves:
A guerire una persona a chi puzzasse la bocca o vero el fiato. Piglia 1 onca garofani, 5 onca cinamomo fino, 5 onca tirats, con un terzo de finissimo vino fa pistare et fa bollire et danne mezzo bichieri per volta.
To heal a person who has horrible breath.
Take 1 ounce cloves, 5 ounces ground cinnamon, 5 ounces tirats (sic), and mix with a third of finest wine, then do grind and boil it and take a dose of half a glass at a time.
Clove gilliflower image from A Sip through Time
A handful of cooking recipes in the 16-17th century Martha Washington’s Cookbook also include gillyflower as an ingredient. Here, the translator states gillyflower is what is now known as the clove-scented pink, or carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus). According to her, gilly comes from French girofle, for clove, and is pronounced jilly. As evidenced by the older forms jellyflower and July Flowers it most likely always was; both are fine examples of the substitution of a word of known meaning for an unknown one of similar sound. Clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus) comes from the French clou de girofle, because of its resemblance to a nail, while the French girofle likely came by way of the Greek caryophyllon. Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree.
The collection of old brewing recipes A Sip through Time by Cindy Renfrow also gives clove gilliflower of the family Caryophilli as an alternate name of gilliflower. Maybe through confusing nomenclature it had become a case of mistaken identity? The Dutch books of secret soap recipes refer to gillyflower as groffelsnavel, which the Medieval Dutch internet translator Historic Dictionaries on the Internet also translates to gilliflower. At first glance, groffelsnavel (Dutch), groffiaat (Belgian), garofano (Italian), girofle (French), girofre (Spanish) and a number of other alternates all lead back to gillyflower as a carnation.
Then the medieval Dutch translator had one last thing to say: “The word was also (including in the Roman Languages) used for the clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus) -1892″. In our modern time the Latin name for cloves is Syzygium aromaticum, but in history the Latin name for cloves was Caryophyllus aromaticus – very similar to the Latin for gillyflower which is Dianthus caryphyllus, and indicates both are part of the family Caryophilli. In history, cloves and carnations were classified as belonging to the same family. They had similar physical characteristics (with both, the bottom of the flower is sort of nail-shaped), were thus likely assumed to have similar properties, and were used interchangeably. Apparently, it is up to context and personal interpretation to decide whether the gillyflower called for is the spice cloves or the herb carnation.
Gilliflower is found mentioned in several recipes, both in personal cosmetics (scented soap) and in brewing. Following are a selection of recipes to illustrate the importance of context:
For Clarre. Take cloues and gilofre quibible, and mac? canll’ gygner and spiguale off an in poudre and temper hem with good wyne and the iij. parte as much of fyn honi that is clarified and streine hem thorough a cloth and doo it into a clene vessel, and it may be made wyth ale &c?.
Take cloves and gillyflower quibible [could be qui belle, or very beautiful], and mac? canll’ [much candied?] ginger and spiguale off [spigot, or drain off?] and in powder, and mix them with good wine and the iij. part as much of fine honey that is clarified and strain them through a cloth and do it in a clean vessel, and it may be made with ale, etc.
Carnations, and the double-cloaue Gillofers from the 1578 Nievve Herbal or Historie of Plantes by Gerard Dewes.
In this recipe from The Customs of London: Otherwise Called Arnold’s Chronicle (1503), gillyflowers and cloves are listed separately, by name, and since gillyflower is likely described as beautiful, my guess is that carnation is meant here.
To Pickle cloue gilliflowrs cowslips burrage & marrigoulds Clip your flowers clean from the whites & cover them over in white wine vinegar, sweetned with sugar, & shake the glasses you put them in often, & when you discover your pickle to shrink, add more to it.
Since this 16th to 17th century recipe by Martha Washington describes gillyflowers as flowers, it likely indicates that carnations were meant, as opposed to the dried out flower bud of the spice clove.
From Dat batement van recepten, a 16th century book of secrets, comes the following recipe for gilliflower soap:
133. Om seepe girofflat te maken. Neemt een pont seepen, set die te weeken in rooswater drie dagen in de sonne; ende als ghi v seepe maken wilt, neemt een vnce ende een half groffelsnagelen wel gestooten, ende die helft van die selue nagelen sult ghi in v seepe doen, ende dat seer wel mengelende. Met dander helft doet dat hierna volcht. Neemt een cleyn potken met rooswater, ende doeghet ouer ‘t vier sieden, ende alst beginnen sal te sieden, doeter die reste van dat groffelsnagelpoeder inne, ende neemt den pot van dat vier, ende decten seer wel tot dat die bobbelen ghecesseert zijn, ende dattet water law geworden si, dan roeret met een houtken, ende also roerende, mengelet met v seepe. Ende is ‘t dat ghijer een luttel beniuyn toe doen wilt, ghi moeget doen, ooc sult ghi v seepe in een busse doen, ende si sal goede ruecke aennemen.
Cloue tree image from the 1633 The Herball, or, General Historie of Plantes by John Gerard.
133. To make gilliflower soap.
Take a pound of soap, put it to soak in rosewater three days in the sun, and if you want to make soap, take an ounce and a half gillyflowers well crushed, and half of these same nagelen should you put into the soap, and mix very well. With the other half you do as follows. Take a clean pot with rosewater, and cook it over the fire, and when it starts to boil, add the rest of the gillyflower powder, and take the pot off the fire, and cover it well until the bubbles seized, and that the water is luke warm, then stir with wood, and also stir, mixing with the soap. And if you would like add a little benzoin, which you should do, also you should put the soap in a container, and it shall take on a good scent.
In this case the giroflatt (alternate of girofle) is also identified with nagelen, an adverb used in modern Dutch for kruidnagelen (“herb-nails”). Kruidnagelen specifically means cloves, therefore, in this case I would be confident to say here giroflatt means the spice cloves.
From The Housekeeper’s Pocket Book by Sarah Harrison, 1739 (as reprinted in A Sip Through Time by Cindy Renfrow, p.154):
To make clove gillyflower wine.
Take six gallons and a half of spring water, and twelve pounds of sugar, and when it boils skim it, putting in the white of eight eggs, and a pint of cold water, to make the scum rise: let it boil for an hour and a half, skimming it well; then pour it into an earthen vessel, with three spoonfulls of barm; then put in a bushel of clove-gillyflower clip’d and beat, stir them well together, and the next day pit six ounces of syrup of citron into it, the third day put in three lemons sliced, peel and all, the fourth day tun it up, stop it close for ten days, then bottle it, and put a piece of sugar in each bottle.
In this instance it is clear from context that a weedy herb is used; it is not describing the dry spice cloves, but the fresh state of carnations.
My conclusion: from the handful of brewing and cooking recipes I found using gillyflowers, most seem to indicate using carnation, either as a fresh or dried herb. Most of the perfumed cosmetic recipes seem to use cloves, as a powdered or crushed ingredient. It makes sense that if powdered or crushed gillyflower is called for it is likely to mean cloves, and if fresh or dried gillyflower is called for it is likely to mean carnation. And take a closer look at the provided images of both carnation and clove – the bottoms of the flowers on both plants do look strikingly similar…
Arnold, Richard (1503) The Customs of London, London: Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington, et. al., 1811.
The Æthelmearc Herbal and Apothecary Guild would like to announce that they have a Facebook page and a quarterly newsletter!
The newsletters are posted on the group’s Facebook page. Volume 2 was posted at the beginning of December and includes articles on the history of gardening, the use of flowers in food, and a list of herbals ranging from early Chinese and Eqyptians to renaissance Italians and Spaniards.
Interested parties are invited to join the discussion on the guild’s Facebook page, which is managed by Lady Maggie Rue (mka Jen Sadler).
Left to right: undyed, goldenrod, nettle, onion, onion (longer), iron – all unmordanted wool.
Having laid my hands on half a dozen skeins of plain white wool yarn, and having the resources of a homestead, I decided to combine the two under the guidance of my friend Angelika and try my hand at all-natural plant dyeing.
But where to start? And what to buy?
Isn’t dyeing quite an intricate and expensive challenge better left to the experienced and initiated?
In part that is true; it is quite handy learning to dye from someone who has done it before.
But it does not have to be difficult or expensive at all (it can be as intricate only as you decide to make it). If you’re looking for a specific shade and want to be able to duplicate, my way is not the way for you. But if you’re happy to get color — and even happier if it is mostly the color you intended — you can get a surprising amount of dyeing fun out of an ordinary backyard.
We both prefer natural fibers so we used a selection of linen, cotton, and wool fabrics and fibers. I quickly learned that plant-based fibers and animal-based fibers do not take color the same way. Plant-based fibers are made from cellulose, which is fairly resistant to taking dye. Animal fibers are made from protein and are relatively easy to dye. Both need a little help to create a good connection between fibers and dye; this process is called “mordanting.”
From looking over Angelika’s shoulders and listening to her explanations the past few years (she loves dyeing with natural materials), I picked up that some dyes need mordanting, some fibers need it, too, but not always or in the same amounts… but why? As it turns out, most fibers and dyes are not all that compatible because there isn’t a lot for the dye to adhere to. So to give the dye a place to stick, something is added that bridges or sticks both to the fabric and to the dye.
In the case of cellulose fibers, a tannin mordant is needed, followed by a metal mordant; in the case of protein fibers, a metal mordant is enough. It is possible to dye wool without mordants but the result won’t be as vibrant; onion and tea are high in tannin and will dye, but mordanting influences the intensity of color. Black walnut is a bit of an odd one since it does not need mordanting because it is high in natural mordants; however, the chemical structure of the pigment allows it to directly adhere to the protein fiber!
Processing sumac leaves to make a tannin mordant.
Two good sources for tannin mordants are sumac and rhubarb leaves. Since rhubarb is easily available in spring and sumac easy to find in summer and fall, these two make a good three-season source of natural tannin mordant. With both sumac and rhubarb the leaves are used, not the wood; for each pound of dry yarn use four pounds of greens.
Put leaves in a big pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, and boil for an hour.
After an hour remove the greens, add the cellulose yarn and let sit for another hour, or two.
Another source for tannins would be black tea, but as that is highly concentrated it would also act as a dye and darken the yarn significantly. Sumac does too, but not as significant and therefore does not interfere with the dyeing process as much, making it a better tannin mordant for brighter colors (and it’s free).
A good metal mordant is alum, or aluminum sulfate, which is fairly inexpensive and sold over the internet at stores specializing in dyes. Use 10% for wool or up to 20% for fine yarn like silk, cotton, or linen, of the dry weight of the yarn.
Add enough water to submerge the yarn, bring to a boil, turn off, add the damp yarn and let steep for an hour, or so.
Do not boil fibers, especially wool roving and tips, as the roiling bubble action of boiling can naturally felt it!
Mordanting the fibers in sumac ‘tea’ overnight
Mordant the evening before and let the yarn sit in the mordant overnight; that way, the yarn is cooled down enough it can easily be squeezed or wrung dry for the next step, the dye bath. Keep in mind that each mordant results in slightly different color dyes, so choose accordingly. For instance, chromium really brightens colors (but is poisonous), alum gives clear colors, tin brightens colors and can also be used as an afterbath (adding it to the dye late to darken), copper gives the best greens and iron darkens, and is often used as an afterbath. Both copper and iron can be made at home: copper can be added by dyeing in a copper pot, and an iron solution can easily be made by adding vinegar to iron scraps (like nails and pieces of cheap fencing) in a glass jar… but be careful not to screw down the lid as the exothermic reaction might respond unexpectantly!
Harvesting stinging nettles is quite a prickly business!
Using plant materials it is not all that difficult to dye yellows; pale yellow, lime yellow, greenish yellow, brownish yellow – most plants give some sort of yellow dye. Like ragweed dyes a greenish yellow, birch & poplar dyes yellow, any of the rosacea leaves dye yellow, peach & apple leaves dye yellow and bindweed dyes a light green yellow. It’s the other colors that are harder to find:
Onion skins can dye a bright orange.
Reportedly,bindweed roots dye a slight pink, as do rhubarb roots (but I’m not digging up my patch!).
Willow leaves and bark dye a cinnamon brown, black walnut a deep brown at first draw and a cinnamon brown at the second.
We also tried some odd ones like daffodil heads (yellow) and tageta flowers (also yellow) and honestly, if there is any indication of dye (it stains your fingers while weeding) get a bunch, boil it down, and see what happens!
Harvesting goldenrod flowers to make a bright yellow dye.
Except for a few dyestuffs, like goldenrod, most dye baths benefit from prolonged exposure. A good rule of thumb is to make your bath in the afternoon, add the yarn, put the colander with greens on top of it (keeps the yarn submerged and keeps steeping more dye) and let it sit overnight. You’ll benefit from the cooler evening temperatures to cool down your kitchen again and as an added bonus the yarn is nicely cooled down by the next day to easily be rinsed in cold water without starting a felting reaction. Let it dry, or set, completely – out of the sun – before washing with soap.
Goldenrod dye with unmordanted wool yarn (top left) and alum mordanted wool (top right).
In the case of goldenrod, the flowers give the bright yellow color and are a potent dye. The longer it sits, though, the deeper the color gets and at some point the green stems and small leaves, which dye brown, will add, making it even darker. So for a bright yellow 15 minutes tends to be the optimum time. Similar with onion peels; sitting overnight can darken the orange towards brown. Black walnut is also a powerful dye and needs no mordanting at all for wool fibers, making it a good beginner’s dye. It also has antifungal properties and was used for wool underclothing throughout history to help prevent skin conditions!
Onion skin dye with alum mordanted wool fiber and unmordanted wool yarn.
For my first project we used well known dye plants like black walnut leaves, goldenrod flowers, stinging nettle and onion peels. We could have weighed the greens, but as our limitation was space in the pots, not the amount of greens, we picked as much as we could fit into each stockpot. As I could fit three stockpots on my stovetop we made three dye baths at the same time, in a similar fashion as the mordant solution: cover the greens with water, bring to a boil and boil for an hour, or so. Remove the greens, turn off the heat, add the yarn – and see the color change…
We dyed plant fibers and protein fibers and got wildly different results – both between the two types of fibers and from what we expected and what actually happened. Unless every variable, including temperature, pH & weights, are carefully controlled, natural dyeing is quite the spontaneous undertaking! For instance; a linen dress I was hoping to dye a deep brown with black walnut turned into a beautiful yellow copper instead – linen really does not take dye very well. A cotton dress I was hoping to dye yellow with logwood turned blue instead! The wool was mordanted in an acidic environment (an alkaline can damage wool fibers) but not rinsed really well, acidifying the dye to a pretty yellow brown. But when we made a new batch and added the cotton dress it was naturally alkaline and dyed a deep blue!
We sure saw chemistry in action: what a difference the nature of fibers makes, how some dyes react to changes in the pH but others not at all, the color difference a bit of metal mordant makes, how some strike enthusiastically quick but others need soaking overnight… to get a taste of all the intricate variables possible while still being such a surprisingly easy and rather satisfying project… I totally see how natural dyeing quickly can become quite the passion!
See Elska’s blog here for the rest of her dyeing adventures.
Someone started a Facebook Page about herbal and apothecary guild work in the Known World and, after some discussion, it became clear that Æthelmearc didn’t have one and would like a kingdom guild.
Botany is one of those subjects that goes hand in hand with medieval research. Whether attempting to cure an illness, make or dye cloth, or design a garden, plants are always important to our SCA persona.
The Æthelmearc Herbal and Apothecary Guild will be focused on all aspects of plant use throughout the Middle Ages, with the caveat that we include Anachronisms such as modern-day safety and knowledge. We shouldn’t poison ourselves with bracken ferns when it has recently been discovered they are severely mutagenic, right?
I will be at Ice Dragon 2016 and would love to talk with like-minded people about starting an Herbal Guild here in Æthelmearc.
I can also be reached at Firewaterpro@gmail.com, and there is an interest thread on the “SCA Æthelmearc” Facebook Page.