Galium Boreale - A retrospective article

Folks! Some of you may know, many won't, that I have been regularly contributing the Guild of Canadian Weavers quarterly publication - The Bulletin. In the Autumn edition I wrote an article under the title, Dyer's Corner. I spoke about Galium Boreale, one of my favourite plants in the Boreal, often not for dyeing, as I keep a madder patch going, but sometimes for dyeing and often harvested (and propagated) to hang about my home, stuff in my pillow or to just run my hands through. It's a magical, beautiful plant in many ways. But! I wanted to put the article out for anyone to take a look at. Here goes...

Autumn, toq'aq, The time of year when gardeners, foragers and natural dyers celebrate. Certainly our gardens, lands and natural dyes give ample gifts all around the year but it is this time that is rich. It is this fact, the chilled air, long nights and the particular magic of wool that make autumn, toq’aq in Mi’kmaq, my favourite time of year. A great time of year for strong, warm colour, wool and not to mention, dyeing yarns is a great way to warm oneself. 

Numerous tones and shades of natural colour are available at this time: goldenrod, tannin from different cambium layers of your local fallen trees, for those living near the nut trees - walnut, butternut. On and on. I’m going to talk about Northern Bedstraw, of the madders and native to Canada. Galium boreale. Alizarin. Red.  

Photo from

Photo from

Galium boreale is available across much of Canada especially in the Boreal Forest. Recognizable by her lacy white flowers, sort of prickly-rough leaves - elongate, obtuse, forming whorls of 4. So named Bedstraw for her sweet smell, hay like, even like vanilla. At one time, people lined their sleeping place with this plant and slept with the scent.

To use the alizarin gift in this plant, harvest the roots. Give a little gratitude. However, be mindful, do not harvest all of them and wait until late autumn, after the fruiting period is passed to ensure the livelihood of bedstraw and that they’ll grow back and hopefully, grow thicker. Since bedstraw spreads by rhizome, or root cuttings, and you're harvesting anyway, place a 2" piece of root nearby in the ground to help the plant grow and to put plant matter in place of plant stuff which you have gleaned. Scrub the roots to clean the soil off, the roots are quite small. Chop or grind them as small as possible, the smaller they are the more the pigment can be released and add this to a pot of water. All madder plants love hard water and calcium, in fact, they grow and produce higher quality in soil that is high in calcium. They will give more red in hard water. So, if you have naturally hard water, great! If not, just crush and add a tums tablet to the pot. Leave your dye pot for 12 - 24 hours for a short fermentation period. 

When you are ready to dye, heat the pot for an hour or two to 60 degrees celsius, much higher than this will brown out the red. At this point you may either leave the roots in the pot or strain the liquid off to dye with and repeat the fermentation process with the roots for lighter shades. Be aware that you may have spots of a deeper red on your yarns if you leave the the roots in the pot. Rinse your pre-mordanted fibre with warm water and enter them to the dye pot, simmer until you achieve your desired depth of shade or until the fibres will not take up any more colour. At this point you can remove them to wash and dry or leave them to cool in the dye pot overnight. When you do remove the fibre, wash with a pH neutral soap, if you’re dyeing wool, a natural shampoo works well. Hang in a warm place to dry. Admire for a while. Weave it up.

A couple of things to note when using natural dye - the type of pot you use will affect your final colour, for purity of colour use stainless steel. Iron, copper and aluminum will all affect your colour and are worth experimenting with, the colour shifts they provide are very interesting. When you’re sampling or experimenting to find colour, a good rule is to begin with 100% dyestuff to weight of your fibre. That is, if you are dyeing 20 grams of fibre, dye with 20 grams of dyestuff, 10 grams of fibre - 10 grams of dyestuff. 

To use the whole plant, put the green tops inside your pillow case. The scent of bedstraw is indeed a beautiful scent to fall asleep with!