Monday, December 13, 2010

Horsetails: Scarves to Dye For

When last we left the garden in the tenacious grip of the horsetails two months ago (a stirring saga that no doubt has caused you to perch on the edge of your seat since that time), the persistent Permian plant had persevered in its pernicious plot to plunder plentiful patches in our petite Ponderosa.

Fortunately, as happens every year, winter arrived and reduced every horsetail to a friable beige skeleton.

But as you may recall (indeed, have you thought of anything else?), we'd experimented with using horsetails as scrub brushes (a little pioneer/camper trick that was a ho-hum exercise requiring lots of elbow grease when attempted on a badly burned pot in the kitchen) and were curious to see what kind of dye could be produced using the plant (this being the other clever horsetail exploitation that pioneering types engaged in).

So we pulled an armload of horsetails and stuffed them into a big red stockpot filled with water.


Then we boiled and simmered them for a while. During this stage, it was fun to alarm people by telling them, "Look what we're cooking for dinner!" 



I can tell you this: simmering horsetails on the stove makes your house smell like wet hay.

After it cooled, we used a skimmer and then a strainer to remove the horsetails, then poured the liquid through a funnel into an empty plastic juice bottle. It looked nasty, like some 18th-century snakeoil salesman's concoction, and packed quite a pong.

I left the bottle, by prior agreement, on a friend's doorstep, clearly labeled "horsetail dye" so that it would not be mistaken for either apple juice or a very large biological/medical sample.

She used it to dye silk scarves, onto which she later felted patterns (she also makes natural dyes out of tea, onion skins, red wine, beets, spinach, and other sources).

Surprisingly, horsetails do not produce a vivid lime green to rival their normal color. Instead, they produce a very subtle, pale vanilla-yellow hue.



If only they graced the garden like a silk scarf instead of looking like a crowd of frenzied Triffids when they're in season.