What is “Sunsikell”?

It’s an unfamiliar word: Sunsikell. Vaguely reminiscent of old books – kells – and new environmentalism – the sun. This is exactly the mix I was going for with this name: traditional skills and crafts, combined with a new (for civilization) regard for the health of our surroundings. Sunsikell.

Sunsikell clothlet color

Turnsole clothlet color

It’s not a made-up word, however; it’s actually an old name for one of the colors I make, a color that was popular in the Middle Ages. There is a plant, with three-lobed seed pods, which was used in those times to create three different clothlet colors for manuscript illumination. (A clothlet color is simply a dye that was soaked into a cloth and dried, which could then be used as an ink or wash color at any time, simply by rewetting a piece of the cloth with medium.) The name of the plant is turnsole.

The meaning of the name “turnsole” is self-evident when you look at it closely: it means “turn with the sun.” Turn-sol. That is what the leaves of the plant do, especially when it is a seedling. They follow the sun through the sky; and the plant must have a lot of sun, or it will not grow. There is a Latin version of this word, which means the same thing: solsequium. And it is from this word that the word sunsikell is derived; it is an old English variation on the Latin. (A slightly more common name is folium, which has its own “history of words” that is far from clear.)

I’ve been fascinated by this color from the beginning, as soon as I first read of it. Imagine: a color much used in the Middle Ages, and barely at all since then; you can get three distinct hues from the same plant; and it’s almost impossible to obtain. In fact, in the beginning it seemed as if it would be completely impossible – at the time Kremer Pigments had not yet begun to sell their folium clothlets, and as much as I tried I couldn’t find seeds for the turnsole plant anywhere, even though research indicates that turnsole is still used for food coloring. (In fact, I did find a site that sells turnsole seeds quite early on, but wasn’t aware of the fact. Due to what I might call challenging information hierarchy, my source appeared to be nothing more than an informational page; there was no hint of purchasing seeds until one reached the very end of a long page of content. So the first couple of times I visited that page, I skipped right past it, not realizing what I had found.)

Though I did obtain the seeds and grow some plants eventually, this turnsole has mostly been a thorn in my side, providing me with much more difficulty than color so far. However, my continuing fascination with it (and perhaps in part the difficulty itself) has led it to become, for me, representative of my quest for natural colors. Once I decided to begin a blog journal of my studies and experiments – and perhaps eventually to provide some of my colors commercially – the unusual name “Sunsikell” seemed perfect for my unusual adventure. So there’s the name of the blog.

– L. Lawrence

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6 Responses to “What is “Sunsikell”?”

  1. Britni Says:

    Hi!

    I stumbled across your blog yesterday. I’m big into recreating the medieval palette myself (just finished a massive collation spreadsheet from sources like De Arte Illuminandi and the Strasburg manuscript and so on), since medieval calligraphy & illumination is a personal passion, and I haven’t been able to find a source for turnsole seeds!

    Would you mind sharing? I’d love to grow my own.

    Another color you might be interested in for blues and purples might be cornflower blue or bilberry blue. Wild poppy petals are also supposed to produce a nice violet once mordanted. 😀

    It’s lovely to read your blog!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hi Britni, thanks for stopping in and commenting. Right now I’m delving into traditional oil painting techniques, but it’s only a matter of time before I dive back into the medieval colors again.

      I’ve been considering trying out cornflowers – now would actually be a pretty good time to order seeds. Have you tried them and the poppies out yet?

      Turnsole seeds are devilishly difficult to germinate, as I’ve discovered, and as I wrote above they need lots of sun. Around here we’ve just about forgotten what sun looks like this year, it’s been so cold and wintry. As a result, I have only a single turnsole seedling growing now, and I’m hoping for a nice late heat wave (we get them here sometimes) so that it can grow enough to make some more seeds for me. If it doesn’t, I’ll have precious few left from last year to try again in the spring. When I have an abundance of seeds once again I’ll be happy to share, but I can’t at the moment. In the meantime, here’s where I got the original ancestor seeds a couple of years ago:

      http://www.maltawildplants.com/EUPH/Chrozophora_tinctoria.php

      If my stock dies out due to the horrible weather this year, I may have to make another order myself. Good luck!

  2. Britni Says:

    Thank you! I just requested a price for seeds from Malta wild plants. Where are you located? I’m currently in North Carolina, so perhaps I’ll have better luck with the weather? I’m currently thinking to set up a “mini” greenhouse to grow the plants in, possibly indoors if they require that much light.

    May I ask how many you got to start with? I set the quotation price at fifty, given that they seem to be that difficult to grow. 🙂

    • sunsikell Says:

      Sure thing… I’m located in San Diego. It’s probably a little strange to hear someone from Southern California complain about the weather… but it really has been horrible this year, overcast most of the time and even chilly. We basically never got a summer, only a few days of heat once in a great while. I wouldn’t have minded at all, except my thoughts were often turned to my poor turnsole seeds…

      I like the idea of a miniature greenhouse, they would probably do well as long as the roof was transparent and they were getting direct sunlight. I may try that myself, though it would have to be quite small in my case.

      I originally ordered a hundred turnsole seeds, but only received about fifty – a clerical error I’m sure. One thing you might try is roughing up the seeds a bit with sandpaper before planting – that seemed to help germination just a little. Soaking them didn’t seem to do much.

  3. Britni Says:

    Oh – Cornflowers make a MARVELOUSLY gorgeous blue. However, you have to keep the flowers away from light after you pick them. It also takes a LOT of flowers to extract a decent amount of color. I would recommend taking a cup of the dried flowers, hydrating them, macerating them, (you may want to experiment with alum. I haven’t yet, but it’s on my to-do list.) and then draining the color. Side note – the color will mold if you try to let the water evaporate off naturally.

    I’m not sure how lightfast the actual blue color is, but given how sensitive the flowers are, you may want to be careful what you use it on.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Thanks! I meant to get some cornflower seeds last winter, but I never got around to it. (Between work, art, drawing and painting classes, paint making, gardening, and the rest of everything, the time does seem to keep getting away from me…) I’ll see if I can get them going this winter.

      I don’t imagine the color is very lightfast at all – but if the color is that nice, it would be worth using for illuminations or for small illustrations.

      The turnsole can make every color from cyan to blue to violet to rose, depending on the alkalinity. The cyan and blue are quite beautiful.

      Do you know what kind of poppies were used for the violet? I imagine the red flowers, but I don’t really know… I would love to see your spreadsheet sometime, and compare it against my own notes.

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