The Season for Madder & Acorns

When I did the Maiwa Ink-making workshop I really wanted to make an ink out of the madder plant I am growing, but the best time to harvest is when the plant dies back, in Autumn/Winter and it was Spring at the time. I also wanted to try making acorn cap and pomegranate ink, but oak trees were also in the opposite season for producing nuts, and my pomegranates were only just starting to flower.

Well, the seasons have turned and I’ve switched from using the dye pot for fabric processing to ink production. I dug out what felt like the largest of the madder roots, chopped them up and put a good handful aside for making ink. The rest were dried and put in with my dye supplies. After comparing a few recipes, I boiled up the root, strained it off, reduced the liquid to 50 ml and added Gum Arabic and clove oil.

We have a pin oak here, but it is only just reaching the age to produce acorns. I was excited to see a few last year. This year all I found at first were teeny tiny acorns with almost no cap at all. Later I did find a few bigger acorns with caps, but it was clear I wouldn’t get many this year either.

I’d told Dad that I wanted to make acorn ink but needed to find an oak tree in full production, and the next time I saw him he presented me with a small bag of caps from a local tree. So I crushed those up and soaked them for a week, then boiled them for an hour. I strained and filtered out the caps then reduced the liquid down to 50 ml. Acorn is a tannin so, after making 30 ml into an unadulterated ink with Gum Arabic and clove oil, I added 12 ml of a 10% ferrous solution to the other 20 ml make an iron-blackened ink.

The iron acorn version works just like iron gall ink, in that it darkens as it oxidises, though not to the deep black galls produce. It’s very satisfying and a great alternative if you can’t find galls. Oak trees are common in Melbourne parks, and you just pick the caps up off the ground rather than having to collect galls from branches.

It had occurred to me that I could make some inks from leftover dye sources from the Print & Paint workshop, and I decided to try making myrobalan and pomegranate inks. Though my pomegranate tree was laden with fruit, they were far from ripe, and I had plenty of powder so I figured I may as well use it.

Using the proportions of ingredients in Maiwa’s iron gall recipe, I set two jars simmering in a water bath, with the jars of powder sitting behind the pan in the same order to remind me which was which. However, I needed to pick them up at one stage then couldn’t remember which order I’d had them in. The solutions looked exactly the same and smelled too similar to identify them, and the inks looked identical except that the non-iron version of one seemed to shift to red. In the end I had to put a quarter teaspoon of each powder into a little container and add water, then filter them both, because the only difference I could recall was that one filtered through a cloth easily while the other blocked up and formed a distinctive paste on the fabric. Good thing I did, because I had switched them around.

Maybe it didn’t matter, since the inks look so similar, but I don’t yet know how these will develop over time. I’d still like to make ink out of the rinds of home grown pomegranates, and I’d like to try making ink from eucalyptus leaves rather than bark. I suspect there’s always another ink to try.

I played a bit making Jason Logan-inspired ink circles. The madder dripped onto a titanium white base did interesting things.

And the brazilwood on madder looks like a petri dish experiment.