1 May 2015

I Am A Dandelion

This year is developing into The Year of Natural Dyeing. Last year was The Year of Crochet. Before that was The Year of Genealogy. There was once mystifyingly a Year of Yoga.

My enthusiasms generally last a year.

Simmered ivy berries have been successful this year, producing a blue and a pink. The berries from a plant in Sainsbury’s car park (Barberry?) gave a subtle purpley pink, and spring’s purple crocuses deposited a minty green on cotton.

Daffodils and dandelions have turned out to be the flowers that keep on giving. They perhaps not surprisingly, give a golden buttery yellow. The trouble is it doesn’t run out. There is a limit to the amount of yellow fabric even I can use. It is so magical though it feels a waste to throw the dye liquid away. There is a pot of it outside that whispers, ‘Go on. Dunk another’.

The variety of these colours and the inexhaustibility of daffodil yellow have made me wonder what the chemicals responsible are. There is also another, more desperate, question following from that query: ‘... and how can I get them to stick to the cotton?’

Being intelligent readers I am sure you can guess the pigments are Carotenoids and Flavonoids, the chemicals that give colour to fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes are red because of lycopene, a carotenoid; blueberries blue due to flavonoid anthocyanins. You will remember anthocyanins from our experiments with black beans.

The reliable yellow of our generous daffodils comes from a type of carotenoid called zeaxanthin. Pleasingly, the ‘xanth’ bit of that name comes from the Greek for yellow, ‘xanthos’. Bright yellow marigold flowers contain up to 98% of another carotenoid, lutein. And what is the Latin for yellow? Luteus!

Paddling in the shores of organic chemistry is fun. Unfortunately the fading memories I have of chemistry lessons in school during the late 70’s mean I don’t understand the scientific terms. What is a phenolic glycoside? Should I be concerned with covalent bonds? But at least I now have some vague idea of what is going on.

However, the overall lesson from this encounter is more sobering.

These pigment chemicals that are the focus of my latest hobby are essential for health. As an example, zeaxanthin and lutein are found in high concentrations in the eye. In some cases it may be helpful to take them as supplements. Public health authorities (and the Daily Mail) repeat the mantra that we should eat more fruit and vegetables because they contain these vital chemicals which are not only pigments but antioxidants.

Admittedly I don’t follow this advice and rarely eat the full five portions of fruit and veg. I am not worried about this because I think I eat enough to keep ticking over. Yet, what struck me when researching natural pigments is how many are needed by a body to merely function, let alone to blossom into full sparkling health.

During the last few weeks I have been picking individual flowers and weighing them to the nearest gram, then fussing over simmering pots to coax molecules of colour to dye a piece of cloth. Just to satisfy my curiosity and creativity.

Shamefully I don’t take such care over the plants I eat for health. It’s more a matter of frying an onion because it makes the sauce taste better, or adding a stick of celery because the recipe says I should.

I can hear the vegetarians among you yelling at the screen. Of course I know fruit and vegetables are ‘good’ for me, but I never fully comprehended how the organs and living processes in my body rely on the chemicals made available to them by the plants I eat.

Life is precarious.

It is also interconnected. As the more spiritual amongst us may say ‘we are all one’. Absolutely, if a dandelion flower is made up of the same stuff as my eye.