the pleasures of pokeberry
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a large, semi-succulent, herbaceous perennial plant, growing up to 10 feet in height. It is native to eastern North America, the Midwest, and the Gulf Coast, with more scattered populations in the far West. Parts of the plant are highly toxic to livestock and humans, so be aware of that if you decide to grow it.
I bought some seeds for Pokeweed from Sand Mountain Herbs a couple of years ago, and because the seeds are very hard, the seed packet recommended to soak them in sulfuric acid for 5 minutes to increase the germination rate. Well, I wasn’t interested in having sulfuric acid around, so after hearing about a different solution from a friend, I put the seeds in a jar of water, and left it in the refrigerator for several days, and then poked each seed with a pin before planting it in a temporary pot. Germination rate was 100%! When the plants got to be a foot tall, I transplanted several into a large planter and a large terra cotta pot.
The first summer I didn’t get a lot of berries, so I let the plants dye back in the winter. The next summer there was an abundant harvest!
Having heard that pokeberry dye is not very lightfast, I did a bit of internet research and found this blog post that suggested a cold dye bath, and I decided to give it a try.
Around August, when the berries began to ripen, I began to harvest, putting the berry-laden stems into a bucket of water mixed with plenty of vinegar. I didn’t measure, but I think I used roughly 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar. Over the next 3 months, I continued to harvest as the berries ripened, adding the stems to the bucket, and stirring occasionally.
In early November, I mordanted some wool yarn in vinegar, per the recipe in Harvesting Color. Then I put the mordanted yarn into the bucket of fermented berries. I stirred a bit every day or so, and after 10 days removed the yarn and let it dry. I was so surprised to get a deep burgundy red color!
On November 15th, I brought the bucket of dye to the Fibershed Wool Symposium so that Sierra Reading could use it in some of her dye demonstrations. She took some of the liquid from the bucket and heated it on the stove, adding vinegar-mordanted yarn and simmering for about half an hour. That yielded a bright pink, which is more typical for pokeberry.
After the Symposium, I took home the bucket with the remaining dye bath (still containing the stems), and on December 5th, decided to do another cold dye experiment. This time I used vinegar-mordanted yarn that is a blend of alpaca and cormo, which I bought from Renaissance Ridge Alpacas a few years ago. Once again I left the yarn in the bucket for 10 days, stirring occasionally, and this time it came out a luscious deep purple, totally different from the first experiment.
Two things come to mind that might have caused the change in color: different yarn and the dye bath had fermented for an additional six weeks.
I haven’t yet tested for colorfastness, but when I do I will post my results here.
Aside from using the berries for dye, Pokeweed is a beautiful plant with stunning fall color, and the berries can be a food source for birds. It can be invasive, however, so I am keeping mine in planters and pots.
Addendum on March 18, 2015:
I finally did some tests for lightfastness on my pokeberry-dyed yarns, and the results were not quite what I hoped for, but revealing none the less.
I left samples of yarn on two different window sills—southwest, which receives direct sun for several hours each day, and northwest, which doesn’t receive direct sun, but is fairly bright. The samples of wool yarn from the first dye experiment behaved similarly to the samples of alpaca/wool blend yarn from the second dye experiment, that is, the yarns in the northwest window faded a bit, and the yarns in the southwest window faded dramatically!
This is the first time I have done any testing like this, so I’m not sure how pokeberry compares to other red dyes (such as madder or cochineal), in terms of fading. I will try testing those at some point too.