Into the winter kitchen…dyes from compost and dried garden goods

Plum: Strength in Transition

Early leaves on a local plum–more red than green

Electric and deeply connected to the seasons, the plum tree has a fine tuned, sensitive conduit to the temperaments of our changing and challenging seasons.  The plum tree is a native of this landscape although here, in the urban/suburban landscapes of the DC metropolis, most of the plum trees we encounter are hybrids and transplants from points far away.  Our plum tree is not a wild tree. It belongs to the family of a myriad of offspring of purple plums cultivated over years of experimentation with varieties tended and shaped in pre-colonial US, and later cross pollinated with species from Europe and Japan which bare their own culinary traditions (plum brandy and plum wine to name a few).  Our plum tree carries a trajectory and stories which connect it deeply to this place, this landscape–to the people and the plants all about it, to the history of the plum in this country, to the people making conscious changes to the very nature of how plums were grown for use, and to their social and cultural roles. 

Within its exterior expressions the plum tree carries an elasticity and strength despite its vulnerability.  It brings vital color to the landscape, and offers an unusual palette to the dye pot.  It seems to speak of transience, impermanence and almost openly expresses the dilemma of survival in a landscape and climate which is somehow not entirely its own–although tracing its biography, it holds generations of geographically related and perhaps more ecologically compatible, ancestors.

The leaves of our own plum tree are two-fold by nature: green on the sun facing side and dark purple on the earth facing side. The leaf is cut with a fine serrated edge, and the alternate veins fan out like small river tributaries from the central vein or midrib.   In the spring its blossoms are the first harbingers of the changing season, often arriving with the last flurries of snow in early to mid-March.  The leaves soon follow the blossoms, unfolding sharp points and releasing nearly translucent purple, petal-like leaves which shift to greener shades later in the season.  In the nascent spring, these magenta shades stand in subtle contrast to the still dormant families of other deciduous trees of our area.  There have been years when summer came as an unexpected interruption to our winter lull, and quick to move into action, the plum would burst into flower, as if blossoms in winter, even deep winter, had always been its plan. It is this capacity, to awaken so majestically in the dormant time of year which has elevated its architecture in song, painting and poem–a beloved and compassionate metaphor, friend and conspirator, it also shares this place of honor with its not so distant cousin, the cherry tree.  All across the cities and in suburban and agricultural locales, these fruiting and ornamental trees have been intentionally planted to give space to the theater of snow in snow. 

Plum trees in full bloom at flying Goat Farm, MD

Iconically, the plum blossom has alluded to the image or symbol of strength, as well as sharing notes of poetic metaphor as the seemingly fragile, ephemeral nature of these almost intangible blossoms stand in stark contrast to the wintery spring in which they first emerge.  The image of these transitory blossoms can be traced to a long and rich tradition of painting and poetry, especially belonging to artistic traditions in China and Japan.  Where the plum, and cherry tree, stand in a landscape they have inspired contemplations of transitions, winter to spring, of new life, of fading life and of the fragile nature of body and spirit; of the microcosm and the macrocosm all wrapped into the poetry of this family of trees.

The plum belongs to the Prunus species which is one of many five-petaled flowering, fruiting, and even nut producing trees, belonging to the bountiful Rose, or Rosaceae family.  The shape, fragrance and taste of the plum itself is another varied aspect of this family of trees, with some 200 varieties of cultivated plums developed and prized for decorative, culinary and medicinal qualities. Characteristically the plants within the Rose family are rich in tannins and bear the quality of astringency–a quality which holds significant medicinal properties.  The plum, as well as many other trees in this genus, also carry trace amounts of cyanide.  In the plum, cyanide levels are highest in the leaf and bark and so, when using these elements as dye material it is essential to work in a well ventilated space to avoid airborne particles carried in steam.  The levels of cyanide dissipate with exposure to heat, sunlight and oxygen (T. Epels)-all elements of our dye processes, and it would be fair to venture to guess that the residue would not linger in the fiber itself given the process involved.

Species of plum native to the American landscape are varied, and are often referred to as wild plums though they were cultivated and cared for in orchards and in integrated landscapes for many years before the European colonists arrived.  Plum trees carry the names of the indigenious tribes living in the regions in which colonists first encountered both people and landscape–they give reference to the points of contact with European colonists, and to the legacy of generations of indigenous tribes and individuals who cultivated, cared for, and influenced the nature of plum.  Among the wealth of adaptive and self pollinating trees of North America the Beach Plum, Chickasaw Plum, American Plum, Canadian Plum and the Allegheny Plum were found living within the Chesapeake Watershed area. The Beach Plum continues to inhabit wilder parts of the eastern sea shore (see INaturalist for observations of the Beach Plum in Maryland, and other parts of the Chesapeake Fibershed).  The medicinal aspects of the multitude of ecologically and geographically adaptive trees is vast.  Below is a fragment from Native American Medicinal Plants; An Ethnobotanical Dictionary elucidating the multifaceted nature of just a single species of plum’s relationship to healing within Indigenous medical traditions:

Prunus americana, American Plum

Cherokee Cough Medicine Bark used to make cough syrup. Kidney Aid Infusion of bark taken for kidneys. Urinary Aid Infusion of bark taken for the bladder.  Cheyenne Ceremonial Medicine Branches used for the sun Dance ceremony. Oral Aid Smashed fruits used for mouth disease. Chippewa anthelmintic Compound decoction taken for worms. Dermatological Aid Compound poultice of inner bark applied to cuts and wounds. Disinfectant Compound decoction of inner bark used as a disinfectant mouthwash…Meskwaki Oral Aid Root bark used as an astringent medicine for mouth cankers.  Mohegan Respiratory Aid Infusion of twigs taken for asthma.  Ojibwa, South antidiarrheal Compound decoction of small rootlets for diarrhea. Omaha Dermatological Aid Poultice of boiled root bark applied to skin abrasions. Rappahonock Unspecified “An ingredient of a medicine made after diagnosis.”

By the 1800’s, European settlers were working to develop new breeds of plum trees from the offspring of US native trees crossed with species brought from Europe and Japan.  Luther Burbank, referred to as a horticulturist wizard,  began crossing and developing new species of plum in his backyard in California in the late 1880’s–work which led to the development of a large, thick skinned hybrid plum that could withstand the long transport across the country via newly emerging railway lines.  His work did much to shape the face of the plum family as we know it today.  He famously asserted that the history of the plum can be seen in three distinct eras–”the wild era” (pre-colonial–note: “wild” being a misnomer), “the backyard era and the railroad era”.  The shape of the plum was deeply influenced by this last period when larger farms on the west coast began to mass produce fruit for the purposes of shipping plums to all parts of the country.  It was through parentage ties to the native plums that Burbank was able to draw on traits and strengths which brought disease resistance and stability to trees and fruits (see Recalling Plums from the Wild in references).

Despite the intent to create hardy resilient trees through selection and crosses, cultivated plum trees are in general known to be susceptible to the fungus, Apiosporina morbosa, causing a condition known commonly as black knot.  Our own tree has been struggling with this intruder for some years.  Yet even before the appearance of the fungus, our tree had another story of encountering forces out of its control.  The tree was struck by lightning and fell lengthwise. Grounded but still held by its roots, it was no longer capable of maintaining its verticality.  The tree continued to produce leaves and plums for a number of years before sprouting a second trunk.  This trunk survived and grew tall and strong–a new tree, independant and yet still connected to the old. It is not unusual for fruiting trees to mother new offspring in this way.  Eventually the older tree broke off and became a part of the living landscape at its feet, as the old trunk composted and provided the ecology to sustain colonies of mushrooms of a number of varieties.  The new tree did not provide the climbing opportunities that the original tree gave and yet it brought new life and new explorations into plum recipes from its small astringent fruits. It continues to bring the same delicate, warmth- awakened blossoms every year when the world begins its sometimes alarmingly abrupt transition from winter into spring.

Leaves from the plum tree in spring soaking before gently heating the dye pot…

As a natural dyer I see the importance of knowing the capacities or expressions, whether in medicine, in color on cloth or in gestures of the plants in our landscapes. These identifying qualities help us to become closer to being in relationship, and closer to situating ourselves in the space of belonging. Through the process of plant dyeing I have come to recognize the gesture and the voice of a plant as a gift, and one that helps to facilitate deep felt respect as what we are doing is creating a new path towards restoring our relationship to our clothing and the planet.  In this way we are moving towards the connections which bring us into belonging and towards the trajectory of healing the rifts we have created through our manufacturing of garments both without connections, and without thought to the consequences of a disregard for the health of the planet.

Finding the gesture of the plum leaf in botanical inks; lichen and oak gall.

As for the gesture of a plum tree, I can speak from my own experience of the solitary tree in our yard, and of the profusion of plums I have experienced in landscapes all across the US. The flowering gesture of the plum tree seems so significant, that this connection to flower, and to its less measurable, tangible essence, could be a way to begin to access the nature of its gesture in healing aspects and in aspects of its very individuality.  In A guide to Flower Essences at Green Hope Farm the authors write that plum helps us to connect with the larger community despite feelings of isolation and distance. The plum helps to:  “set an imperishable tone of universality so that you can sail through experiences that might have left you distraught, alienated and exhausted.” Here one might even see plum as the remedy towards healing our feelings of disconnection and isolation from the natural world.  Plum is also a constituent in Dr. Bach’s well known crisis remedy known as Rescue Remedy, designed to address problems, fears and anxieties as they arise in the moment.  In Bach’s remedies the cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera, speaks to resilience when facing deep rooted fears and loss of control–helping us to work towards finding clarity in a disruptive moment.  I can not help thinking how apt the connection is even from my personal reflections and experiences with the plum in our own backyard.  Our plum is the offspring of human endeavors and in fact carries a reliance on the continuation of human endeavor and intervention.  It stands in relation to the beings which make up its small ecosystem–that of our backyard, but also spanning to the larger more far reaching connected ecologies.  Our plum relies on caretaking for its survival–and perhaps one could take up the metaphor introduced by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her writings and talks, that of species loneliness, of culturally reinforced notions of separateness from nature and of seeing human participation both divorced and outside of a true relationship with nature, as a way of understanding the cultivated plum. Our plum tree invites and demands a relationship with human endeavor–it demands our connection and conception of being a part of its nature in order to survive.  Instead of seeing the relationship as codependency perhaps we could see the plum, and other living beings, through a similar lens, one which denotes empathy and responsibility as we move closer towards acknowledgement of our own species interdependence and relationship as a part of, not apart from, nature. 

A solitary plum on our tree in the early summer…

The process of unearthing stories of the plum has also brought another facet into focus, a story presenting much like a gift, as I recently learned that in Japan, plum trees were often planted in the north east corners of a garden to act as guardian and caretaker–a totem against the entrance of negativity into the sacred space of one’s home and garden.  And so ours stands in just that place within our garden–guarding and asking for our guardianship as it faces its own struggles.

In gathering the leaves from this unique tree for our dye pot, I am filled with a sense of reverence for the gift of this prodigy and welcome the opportunity to see the expression of generations, and transitions, reflected within the colors of our fibers.

Shades of light green from the two-toned red and green plum leaves collected in early spring…


Dye notes:

Colors from the plum depend much on the type of tree and the season in which one harvests.  The colors from the leaf and bark can also vary.  The addition of an iron modifier can shift the colors to more blue-gray or a darker green depending on the fiber type.  The leaf and bark are sensitive to pH shifts and it is by working with acidic and alkaline modifiers that one can extend the potential palette.

A good time to gather plum materials is in the spring when pruning can help the health of the tree.  Smaller branches can be trimmed to create openings for air and sunlight. To extend the surface area and depth of your dye bath, break up your branches into smaller pieces.  Leaves and branches should be soaked for at least a day and up to a week before beginning to add heat.  As with most tree material, the richness of your dye experience will deepen exponentially if you add the element of slow time to your process.

We gathered at Flying Goat Farm, in Lisa’s dye studio to explore Plum, Cherry, Osage Orange and Eucalyptus this past spring.  Our plum leaves were soaked for a few days before we began to process the plant matter with heat. The leaves were then slowly brought up to a gentle simmer and held at temperature for at least an hour and a half before dividing the materials into a continuation of the stove top heat and into a large mason jar for a four day solar extraction.

For our heated extraction we continued to hold the temperature just below a simmer for approximately an hour.  We left the plum leaves in the pot with the fibers to allow for a longer extraction time as woody materials in general require a longer soaking and cooking time to facilitate color release.  Soaking your plum leaves for a few days before you begin and even heating for a few hours and letting the materials sit in the pot overnight before adding your fibers can also help to bring richer colors.

Below are some of the results of working with stove top heat and latent solar heat on wool farm yarns and samples of cotton,linen, silk and wool fabric.

Above, hot processed plum leaf; alum mordanted, lower skein with a post-mordant iron bath.

Solar processed skeins of milled and hand-spun farm yarns.  The iron post-mordant bath and the character of the varieties of sheep breeds creates a span and array of warmer and cooler shaded colors.  Iron deepens the green tones and even brings a warmer hue to the fiber.

Above, solar dyed yarns mordanted with alum.  In general, the solar processed yarns appear more muted and carry less sharp, saturated greens.  

Above, the contrasts of hot processed yarns; first and second from the left yarn from Polypay wool, third and forth a Perendale/Mohair blend, and last a Jacob handspun.  Yarn on the furthest left is treated with an iron post-mordant bath.  Natural gray colored wool did not take up the colors as strongly.

Unmordanted yarns took up the dyes well though over all the colors appeared a shade less saturated than those mordanted with alum.  The addition of iron on unmordanted skeins tended to produce a grayer green than those treated with an alum mordant.

Above 4-day solar processed unmordanted linen, silk, cotton and wool–contrasted with iron post-mordanted fibers.  The cotton did not pick up a color and the linen showed a peach colored hue, raw silk gave a Robin’s egg blue.  Overall the iron mordant on all the fibers darkened and greened the respective hues.

Above, hot processed unmordanted cotton, linen, silk and wool gave similar results although the raw silk was more on the gray side of blue and the iron pot-mordant brought more green than experienced in the solar method.  Subtle color differences overall and with the wealth of the naturally occurring tannins in the plum leaf, it falls into the category of a substantive dye–one which does not necessitate a mordant for the release and holding of color on fiber.

Above, alum mordanted solar process on linen; right sample with a pot-mordant iron bath.

Above, alum mordanted wool felt; right sample with a post-mordant iron bath.


Resources and references:

Natural colors; Dyes from Plants by Ida Grae (includes discussions of working with a varieties of plum species with green leaves and purple leaves–Grae does work with tin to adjust and influence the purple tones, a substance which is quite toxic and would, in our humble opinion, be best to avoid in the home studio)

Wild Color; the Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes by Jenny Dean and consultant Karen Diadick Cassekman (in depth and useful suggestions for working with tree matter–leaf and bark of the Plum included)

Natural Color by Sasha Duerr (includes suggestions for working with plum tree branches from Prunus cerasifera)

Native American Medicinal Plants; An Ethnobotanical Dictionary by Daniel Moerman

Recalling Plums from the Wild, Jonathan Damery (

Purpleleaf Plums, Arthur Jacobson

Robin Wall Kimmerer was guest lecturer with the Guide to Indigenous Maryland project program with the Howard County Library System (9/14/22)