The Art of Foraging – Learning Our Plants
Foraging for leaves and flowers to use in natural dying and printing is an art in itself.
At home I place them all in vases filled with water to keep them for a few days or so as I use them. At this time of year, I also start to dry and begin to store them for later use when the fresh crop disappears. Even with the arrival of next Spring, there’s precious little to find in the way of fresh printable leaves until Summer gets underway. It’s really not until the heat arrives that most of the buds become leaves and flowers. August and September are when the bumper crops are in full array here in New England. So, already I am collecting for next year as well as for current use. In fact, I’ve just now opened the last layer from my October 2017 cache – prime time for printing now!
Ailanthus, Tree of Heaven is a very invasive, non-native tree. I chose three videos that I find to be excellent for identifying this tree and it’s leaves, Each one has something helpful that the others do not, so they’re all worth watching particularly if you’re having trouble distinguishing between this tree and the Sumacs. I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring this out but after watching these videos, I think I’ve got it!
Now, onto the Sumacs! Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), also known as Common Sumac and Staghorn (Rhus typhina) are the ones I find most plentiful in my town. It has white flowers in the Spring. Female plants blossom into red berries, aka drupes, at the top of the leaf spires. Alternate, shiny, pinnately-compound leaves with 15 to 25 leaflets. Leaves are teardrop shaped with serrated edges. Dark green on top, the undersides are lighter in color and smooth. Autumn colors shift from yellow to orange, red, even purple.
These are safe, even edible, as opposed to Poison Sumac, which have white drupes, so pretty easy to identify so you can steer clear of it. These berries may also be green or grey, but they won’t be red. You don’t even want to touch Poison Sumac because you can have a serious allergic response to it.
But the red berried Common Sumac is the best for its dye properties. And best yet, it’s a Native Plant here. You might want to plant it in your native garden. It does have fairly aggressive root rhizomes, so you’d want to choose its location carefully. It has no natural predators, so it roams freely. I’m looking for a partly shady, moist spot for it to keep it in check, probably in my back yard edging the wooded land.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) differs from smooth sumac by the long hairs covering its stems, leafstalks and drupes.
I hope this helps those of you who, like me, have a hard time distinguishing between the leaves of Ailanthus and Sumacs! What have you learned? What plant do you think this is?