There are two different types of trees in the Sumac family – the Smoke Tree or Cotinus Coggygria and Staghorn Sumac or Rhus typhina.
The Smoke Tree is bush native to southern Europe, east across central Asia and the Himalaya to northern China. It can grow to be 15 feet tall. Its flowers come in various colours such as purple, red, maroon, green, pink and orange. The colours obtained from this tree are listed beside the mordants they are mixed with:
Alum – bright orange
Tin – bright golden orange
Copper – deep rust
Iron – golden tan
The Smoke tree has been used as a gargle and to stop bleeding. It has also been used in tanning and dyeing.
The Staghorn Sumac is found in this area. It is also found in the rest of southern Canada and the north eastern United States. It can grow to be between 15 to 30 feet high. Its yellow flowers become red “candles” or its fruit in the fall. It has many uses as you will see listed below. Since it contains tannic acid that mordants the wool, it does not require a mordant in order for its colour to remain in the wool. Mixing it with the mordants listed below will give you the following results:\
Alum mixed with the “candles” – golden copper
Tin mixed with leaves – pale green-yellow
Copper mixed with leaves – warm green-brown
Iron mixed with fore-going plus bark – warn orange-tan
The book “Spectrum Dye Plants of Ontario” “suggests there is “an unusual range of deep glowing colours which warrants further exploration”
Historical uses include using the fruit for drinks. Used cold, it produces a lemonade-type beverage. Used hot, it can be drunk as a tea, although it is said to be bitter. The fruit is edible, but is also bitter. It has also been used to produce wine. The leaves and twigs are a good source of tannin (for tanning and dyeing). Natives used it to treat diarrhea, fevers and sore throats.
Mordants are substances that combines chemically with the dye and fibre to ensure the colour will remain permanent. The two mordants I have chosen to discuss are Alum and Iron.
Alum is white powder or crystals (generally available at bulk food stores in the spices section). It is the safest, easiest and most common mordant. When used with cream of tartar (also found in the spice section of a bulk food store), it makes the colours even more true. If too much is used, it will make the fibre too sticky. Some uses for alum include pickling, an ingredient in baking powders, deodorant, toothpaste, play dough, fire extinguishers, water treatment and more.
Iron is made up of light green crystals. When used on fibre, it will deepen or darken the colours produced by the plant used. Iron will harden the fibre if too much is used. An alternative to the using the green crystals is boiling 1 gallon of water, 2 cups plain vinegar and about a cup of rust nails or iron filings. It is an element of the periodic table. Countless uses include such as one of the most important minerals to the human body, insecticides, water purification, cookware, building material and much more.
-Spectrum Dye Plants of Ontario edited by Nancy J. McGuffin, compiled by Burr House Spinners and Weavers Guild
-Dyes from Lichens and Plants: A Canadian Dyer’s Guide by Judy Waldner McGrath