Plant dyes, having a smell, odourlessness in general.

Lump indigo (blue)
Old recipe from Outer Hebrides

Boil wool with onion skins till clear yellow, then let wool dry. Have an old pail filled with urine at least two weeks old, or until skin forms on top… Put lump indigo in a muslin bag, heat the “bree” by placing a hot stone in it. Squeeze in the blue bag. Wet the wool and place in the liquid. Cover the vessel and place where it will keep warm… For navy blue, 11 to 21 days are required. Fix with boiled sorrel roots as rinsing water.

Dye Plants and Dyeing, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, 1964.

Books about natural dyeing have a lot of lore I hadn’t foreseen. So many smells! Boiling weird fungi, soaking fiber with onions (“It will take at least four washings to eliminate the odour”), fermenting urine. One book detailed an argument between the author and her editor about whether traditional Harris tweed, dyed with lichens, smelled “musty” or, less judgmentally, “earthy.” I had no idea that tweed used to have a smell. I am fascinated by this, and want to dye all my clothes with different plants to get to know the smells.

Why don’t I expect my clean clothes to have a smell? Not a laundry scent, but a part of their nature. I can remember talking about the smell of my clothes like a normal thing, all the time. Wool sweaters smell sheepy if I get wet in the rain. A couple of weeks ago I told someone (who?) that I liked the smell of raw silk, because I was knitting with a silk blend yarn. I can recall the scent of cotton in my mind’s nose: wet, dry, or hot. Why did I still think of clothes as odourless?

Heather wrote once (or maybe we spoke) about why people are so obsessed with genital odours. Do they smell right? Do they smell too strong? How to keep the smells in control? She suggested that this was partly because we have come to expect the entire rest of our bodies to have no odours at all. Healthy hair, feet, armpits, mouths, and skin in general all have smells, too, but between washing and deodorizing they’ve been redefined as ideally odourless. It’s total fantasy, bodies still smell, but we expect odourlessness. (Like my clothes!) Compared to that, genitals are almost getting smellier by contrast.

Thinking about the more familiar politics of body odours makes me even more interested in knowing what smells are required to make the colours in my clothes. These plant dyes seem like an opportunity to make experiential connections, to know things by observation. To have know what clothes smell like and why, instead of not knowing what shocking petrochemical smells are happening at distant textile factories. It feels grounding. Educating my mind’s nose. I have some pondering to do, regarding wood smoke and other smells that have been banished from modern, civilized, classy life.

I think I will start slow, though, with tea and lavender dyes. Fermenting a bucket of my own urine is going on the “someday I will peek behind this curtain” list along with attending a pig or goat slaughter. Someday.

You’d yelp too

Euphorbia in bloom

I awoke to this. Giant flower buds have yet to disappoint!

Galen is away on tour, so I exclaimed several things out loud to no one. Fortunately, Marc dropped by to loan me a book on his way to work, so I got to share the special thrill of outlandish botany with another human.

Two neighbourly humans agree: it’s so hairy.

Euphorbia flower-- it's very hairy

My immediate thought was for the pollinator. What is supposed to rub its body on that flower? Marc surmised that the pollinator should be at least as hairy as the plant.

Hopefully the flower is hard at work summoning this creature, and later this afternoon I’ll find some variety of Ancient Beast knocking against the window screen, trying to achieve its hairy destiny.


Baby sugar pea So it turns out you can’t really grow a “crop” of peas in a single pot, but you can grow snacks. I’ve been dutifully planting into this pot at three week intervals, indulging my little gardening urges. My reward appears to be four to six peas at a time.

I’d been pollinating the sugar pea blossoms with a fluffy paintbrush, but I don’t think the plant sex is necessary. When I was tickling each flower in just the right place, the pods would end up nursing a single, swollen pea among 5 or 6 shrivelled unpeas. Since the vines have gotten denser I’ve been missing a lot of the flowers, and their pods look less Knocked Up and more like regular sugar peas.

Either I was not a very good lover or virtue makes peas strong.

My euphorbia is in a family way The big news around my fake garden, though, is the monstrous bud the euphorbia is making. I don’t know how long it has been growing this; I spotted it about a week ago. It’s about the size of a golf ball— hilariously out of proportion to the rest of the plant.

The bud is shaped like a bird head, like it’s about to start talking. It’s covered in peach fuzz. I am excited just to have such a ridiculous bud hanging around. I wonder how long this will go on before it pops.

Rebecca thinks euphorbias are related to pointsettias, and that I might soon be the proud guardian of a pointy red flower. She also maintains that when cacti flower, they flower for weeks at a time. She’s a bit of a garden enabler.

Dragonfruit spawn and their hedonistic ways

Pot of dragonfruit cacti

My dragonfruit plants should be turning about 4 years old soon. I grew them from seeds I scooped out of a fruit from Chinatown. Supposedly, they are climbing jungle cacti, and will bear dragonfruits, so I cut them a lot of slack about being tiny and idiotic. (Check out that guy in the back. That is a four year old plant that is smaller than the seed of a garden pea!)

Puny-ness notwithstanding, my cacti friends are cool to look at. I’m sure if I put them in a more proportional pot I wouldn’t have to defend them against the teasing of houseguests, but they are so fragile that I’m afraid to exhale too forcefully when I’m near them, nevermind dig them up and move them around. (It has taken four years to get one of them to peek over the edge of the pot. If I kill any now, I don’t think I’ll have the stamina to try again.)

Ever since the seeds sprouted, my dragonfruit have exhibited permanent puberty. Every new growing phase looks like some kind of embarrassing crotch development. (Oh, what you must think of me.) Those spiny branches first emerged as a hairy patch between their first pair of leaves, for example. Now, the two largest specimens are producing little erections. Cute, huh?

Dragonfruit and its new erection

Dragonfruit with little erection on the front

House of 100 jades

I popped awake at a productive hour this morning, and settled in to repot a bunch of plants. My favourite plant care activities are the radical rehabilitation procedures. Put all the potted plants in the shower together, for example, or prune the shit out of something.

Most of all, I love how much the plants love these treatments. I freely admit to being thrilled to see a plant go from dusty and withered to shiny and covered in buds. I don’t think you can get that kind of immediate gratification by watering a cat or whatever. (Maybe you could, if you let the cat get dusty and withered first?)

Today’s surgeries mainly involved our 400 jade babies. The sprawling jade plant in the kitchen has been slowly shrivelling up with some weird rot that starts in the middle of branches, so I had accumulated a lot of twigs and cuttings in my attempts to prune the evil out of it.

It finally became clear (through a shower experiment) that the chief jade was suffering from compacted soil and water wasn’t getting to all of its roots. Time to excavate, amputate and bandage it with nice new dirt. It was a good opportunity to prune off some of the large, tangled branches and plant them in more balanced positions. I have yet to grow a houseplant that is properly pruned with unencumbered limbs, but that’s definitely a goal.

For several years (about 2001 – 2004?) I frequented the You Grow Girl forums and was really into growing exotic and rare houseplants (tropical fruits, carnivorous plants, mimosas that move when you touch them, etc.) but through all the experiments and casualties, I’ve never gotten tired of the lovely old jade plants.

Galen brought a small, bushy one into our relationship, which has become the squid-like kitchen jade. His mum gave us one of her huge, semi-trailing jades in a pot about 2 feet across, for Christmas one year. The rest of our jade farm was spawned from those two. Some of them are so excellent right now that I’m tempted to name them. One in particular would be “Teen Heart-throb.”

Growing up I never saw jades at other families’ houses, so I still have the feeling that they’re kind of special, even though you can buy a 6 inch pot for like $5 at any corner grocer. They want to live. That would be a big credit to a plant even if it didn’t have cool succulent-spoon leaves. So we’ve agreed that having 10 jade plants in every room in the house is not only acceptable, but desirable. I’m glad that Galen is into having a zillion jade plants too. By the time I’m any good at kung fu, we’ll be able to refer to our apartment as The House of Potted Jade.

All these foxy new pots of jade are giving me the houseplant itch. I need to buy lemongrass anyway, so maybe I’ll plant a stalk. And maybe some tamarind seeds. Those were the hottest seedlings I think I’ve ever seen— their first real leaves are these big fronds of pinnately compound leaflets, and they develop red, peeling bark right away. I managed to grow three I think, but they died when we went travelling. (No blame on the plant-sitter; tropical seedlings are hardly a fair thing to impose on a helpful friend. The jade did fine.)