I can remember being annoyed with goldenrod when I first moved to the country. It really dominates the September landscape, makes it hard to hike through our meadows, has a bad rap for causing allergies (the true culprit is ragweed),and did not seem to have much practical use. Seven years later, I truly appreciate it- and not just because it dyes silk and wool a lovely, natural yellow- but for its essence and what it represents. While goldenrod does have medicinal uses, it is also “The Bee Gold Rush”- offering our friends, the bees, a magnificent feast just when they need it most- before a long, cold winter. While I am busy canning tomatoes and freezing corn, the bees are stocking up their larder with goldenrod nectar.
If you spend some time with plants- meditating on them, sitting amongst them- I think it is possible to get a feeling for their work and purpose. Goldenrod is a very giving, humble, and yet glorious plant. It is as though it has soaked up an entire summer of sun and then reflects it back to the world, standing tall and yet head modestly, slightly bowed- gathering all along the roadsides to greet passers by and create a celebratory gold-lined path on many of our country roads. It is also anti-inflammatory and diuretic, having a number of uses as a healing herb.
In Julia Grave’s incredible book The Language of Plants: A Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, she talks about the difference between “a single, showy flower” and “a group of flowers giving an impression as if they were one flower.” The latter “often have to do with our comportment in groups, or the unification of all our sub-parts, of self”. In North American goldenrod, single flowers are grouped into little flowers which are then additionally grouped into a rod. This is a “double grouping process”
“It is the flower essence for children who seek attention from the group by acting in a negative way. It will enable them to act in harmony with the group without needing negative attention… In whichever variation, grouped flowers play on the theme of the individual versus the larger human context.”
Julia also talks about the significance of the order in which a flower blooms.
“Most flowers along spikes bloom from the bottom up… they open their lowest flowers first… it is remarkable that Goldenrod blooms from above down… The whole gesture is one of preparing to go in after the outward gesture of summer... Blooming with a gesture of a warm glowing candle that burns downward, Goldenrod speaks of bringing in the energy.”
When I see goldenrod now, I see a living, vibrant metaphor of my place in the cycle of the seasons; I remember to check in with myself and often find the busyness of autumn is truly burning my candle low, and I feel the stirrings of anticipation for the slower pace of winter.
To dye with it, you want only the blossoms, as leaves and stems will contribute a greenish tone to your dye pot. You can use the blossoms fresh or dried. It is time consuming to strip the blossoms from the stems, so find a pleasant spot or some pleasant company and settle in!
Prior to dyeing your silk, you may wish to mordant it. This ensures the color stays vibrant and your dye job does not fade or rinse out. Some people use vinegar as a mordant, but I find alum to be more effective and the safest of the mordants. Common consensus is to use 1/4 the weight of the item to be dyed worth of alum, and in my dye pot I generally do a few yards of silk with 1 tablespoon of alum and 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Handle the alum carefully (do not inhale or eat!). It is also well-advised to have a reserved dye pot and not use your pot for cooking edibles if you use mordants in it. Enamelware pots (like those typically used for canning) make great dye pots.
To mordant your silk, add the alum and cream of tartar and enough water to completely cover your silk, with extra for evaporation, and let dissolve. Then heat the water to a gentle simmer (do not boil- may ruin the sheen of the silk!) and allow the silk to soak for an hour. Now, remove from heat and let soak overnight. When cooled, ring out but do not rinse. You can allow it to sit in a cool place for a few days and this will “set” the silk all the more.
The day before you dye, you’ll want to put your blossoms in the dye pot with enough water to cover the blossoms and silk you intend to use (do not add silk yet though), and extra to account for evaporation. Bring blossoms and water to a boil for 20 minutes; remove from heat and allow to soak overnight. You may wish to add tumeric or marigold if you would like a more vibrant yellow; I usually add a few petals of this flower (not sure of the name) that shoots up each year in our garden to herald September.
Strain the flowers and add your silk to the pot (and perhaps some natural wool felt or natural roving if you wish!). Heat, but do not boil (this damages the sheen of the silk), stir well to distribute dye evenly and be sure silk is not folded up as this will effect dye distribution. After an hour, remove from heat and allow to cool.
Rinse and dry- all done!
Don’t forget to dry some goldenrod for later. It will cheer you up and remind you of Indian summer during the dark winter.
If you are dyeing a large piece of silk as I did for our nature table, this is a great tutorial on hand-hemming silk. If you are dying a pre-hemmed 35″ square silk and wish to turn it into a cape, you can simply tie two corners to fasten the cape or get fancy and fold one edge down about an inch or so, sew in place, and thread a finger-knitted yellow chain through the “sleeve” for a tie.