Sunsikell seedlings

Turnsole seedlings

Turnsole seedlings

In a couple of past posts I have noted the difficulty I have had in getting turnsole plants to germinate. These are the fascinating plants that produced the medieval illumination color (or rather colors) of folium, and for which I have named my blog, my adventure, and, if it ever comes into being, my company.

The plants: I have planted, I have fed and watered, I have cried and cursed – and no matter what I did I could never get more than one out of many to sprout. Once they do sprout, they also need a lot of sun to grow, which is, or has been for the past two years here, a major consideration. But that issue pales with just getting them to put in an appearance in the first place.

Having said that, I figured out what else turnsole seeds need in order to germinate. They need a year.

Late in the spring of last year I planted many of my turnsole seeds in degradable seedling trays, to see only one of them come out of the ground. That one languished and ultimately failed because of the lack of sun last year – but none of the others came up at all. Eventually I stopped watering the little trays, disgusted, and let them sit. I figured I was going to have to order more seeds. Disappointing.

Then, earlier this spring, it was time to plant the tomatoes. Rather than waste the soil that was in the trays, I smashed them up and mixed them into the soil in the larger pot before planting the tomato seeds. Lo and behold, a week or two later turnsole seedlings began coming up. Well, they looked like turnsole seedlings, but I wasn’t completely sure at first, so I didn’t post about it. Now I’m sure. It’s them. They waited an entire year to make their grand entrance. Patient little buggers, them.

I plan to ask my source of the seeds, over in Malta, if he knows anything about these plants requiring a year to germinate as a general thing. But I’m guessing that’s exactly the case. Consider: before, I had extreme difficulty getting even one or two of them to sprout; now, suddenly, five of them have enthusiastically volunteered. So: turnsole growers take note.

These five are now in a similar fix to the loner from last year: struggling under a lack of sunlight. But they’ve gotten an earlier start on the growing season, and I bet the gloomy weather won’t be quite as bad this year (though it certainly is so far!). So I’m hoping to have a nice little crop of sunsikell plants again this year.

The ironic part? None of the tomatoes came up. Not one.

Maybe they’ll show up next year…

turnsole volunteer crop

volunteer turnsole crop


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17 Responses to “Sunsikell seedlings”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    I’m sure you’ve already thought of it, but i’ll mention it anyway – are you using a grow light while you’re waiting for the sun to make a better appearance?

    And thank you for reminding me – it’s time to get outside and plant my indigo! we’re finally reliably past the freezing weather here. Cross your fingers for me that they’ll survive in my area!

    • sunsikell Says:


      Sorry for the delayed response. I actually have a light that someone gave me for tomatoes (hah!) that I haven’t tried out yet. I was going to use it to try to coax some of these seeds up, but then the volunteers showed up. They’re outside in a rather large terracotta pot, so they’re on their own as far as the light goes. Here’s hoping.

      Best of luck with your indigo!

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Wow! Congrats on getting the seed to sprout. I know how frustrating that can be. I had something similar happen to my nettle that I am growing. It did not sprout for a month. I mixed up the seed and added tomatoes and low and behold the nettle started sprouting. I cannot wait to hear how your turnsole turns out. I wrote “Malta Wild Plants” and the seeds were to expensive for my current budget. I would love to grow it myself. I am focusing on my Japanese Dyers Indigo this year. I am also going to try experiments with my gofun white this summer. I cannot wait to see how these turn out. Good Luck!

    • sunsikell Says:


      Funny about the nettle – we can’t hack the stuff down fast enough around here! Nevertheless it’s one I haven’t gotten around to yet. I’d love to hear how the green dye turned out for you, and will also wait to hear about the polygonum. I grew some one year, but it didn’t seem to do well around here – or at least, not as well as the suffruticosa.

      If you have enough of the gofun, would you do me a favor and mix a little bit up in oil binder? I’m still looking for some version of calcium carbonate that does not turn transparent in oil…

      If I get back ahead with the turnsole seeds, I’ll be happy to send you some. Probably be late this year or early next at least. If I start posting that I have too many turnsole seeds, remind me that you’d like some.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Yeh that nettle is going wild now. We cut some down today to eat. I will let you know if we get a decent green. I can test out that gofun for you and see how it fairs in an oil medium. I agree regular calcium carbonate has an undesirable consistency. I am hoping that the gofun has more opacity myself. I hate depending so much on titanium. I am considering switching to more water media because of that. If you have extra turnsole later after harvest I would love some. We have so much growing in the garden and I was exceeding my garden budget. Oh I wrote that guy about the blue green algae pigment. He quoted me prices around $185/kg. He would not sell me less.
    “The product name is “Spi-blue”. We have two kinds of Spirulina blue colors.
    -Spi-blue D color value 60
    -Spi-blue D180 color value 180
    The price information is below ;
    -Spi-blue D JPY15,000 per kg + shipping cost
    -Spi-blue D JPY45,000 per kg + shipping cost”
    I told him I planned on using it for watercolor. He seemed apprehensive to sell it to me for that purpose. So if you order some do not mention that you will be painting with it. Anyhow…I hope you painting did well in the county fair and you summer garden is f going well.
    Best Jeremy

    • sunsikell Says:

      HI Jeremy,

      What do you know about zinc white? I don’t know much about its extraction and processing and waste, though at one point I made a brief effort to research it. I know that zinc has been known for a very long time, and zinc oxide has been suggested as an artists pigment since the late eighteenth century, before the Industrial Revolution really got into full swing. Makes me interested. I know it’s more brittle than other whites, but if I really start working with wooden panels that wouldn’t be as big a deal. I love the lead white, but considering the other as well… and zinc white does work really well in watercolors.

      I’ve also considered trying casein as an underpainting medium, and only using oil paints in glazes over it. I don’t yet know how well calcium carbonate does in casein. It’s one of the many things I plan to try out at some point.

      I wonder if the Spi-blue folks might be willing to send out a “test sample,” if we told them we were thinking of using it “at home for adding color to homemade ice cream, jelly and juices,” as they say on their site. I just made up some anthocyanin lake from some red geranium flowers, and it’s much like the antho lake from cabbage: darkish and dullish, and nowhere near the blue I can get from indigo. It sure would be nice to have a nice bright organic blue!

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Zinc Oxide is a much more abundant mineral and metal than lead. Zinc can be found on the outer crust…easier to mine. It is still slightly toxic, but overall is easier on the environment and human health. As you know it is used in Sunscreen. It was used in china as pigment “china white” pre-industrial revolution. I believe in the mid 1800’s they started industrially processing zinc as safer and more stable alternative to lead. People had problems with lead paintings turning black or browning when exposed to different atmospheres or acidic environments. I believe it is a superior pigment although it is slightly brittle and a more cool blue white. Lead as you know has more warm reddish tones and a buttery texture. Lead is great for flesh tones and handling paint. I know that zinc is a little more transparent than titanium which could be nice for building layers.

    Nice idea mixing calcium carbonate with casein. Both Calcium Carb and Casein are pretty bright on their own if layered in a hide medium. I had this friend in grad school who made traditional egg tempera panels. They were beautiful. He would buff and sand his calcium carb and hide glue in between glue/ fabric layers. Afterwards it felt like a seashell. Really an exquisit painting surface.

    I sure would love a very bright natural blue. Like the algae I used to use. The one I had was precipitated to talc so I think it helped its opacity. I still have some that I am saving for something special. I have to say the couple of iris blue greens I made this year are not as dull as my woad is. Not as bright as the algae though. I cannot wait to see how the polygonum turns out. I have this book called Colors: a natural history of the pallet by victoria finlay…she talks about murex or bright mollusk blue. Which is commonly know to make tyrian purple…but with a certain potion cooked in its own salt makes a bright blue. Which is used in a jew prayer shawl called a tallis. It is a very holy color.

    But as you may already know this murex/tyrian purple dye is like the price of gold. Its like $100 for 25 mg. Yes milligrams. Yikes!

    Cannot wait to hear how your experiments turnout. I will let you know how the gofun goes. Let me know if you ever find a bright blue. Maybe we can get a hold of this algae one day. Cheers!

  5. Jeremy Says:

    I meant to say “jewish”…sorry.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Zinc white… yes, I’m concerned about the reports of brittleness. But again, may be moot if I switch over to working only on panels. Haven’t decided yet if I’ll do that or not. I like both. For the time being, I’ve gotten titanium off the palette almost entirely, even though I’m still somewhat agnostic about its potential for sustainability. And I’m very interested in unbleached titanium, much less processing required there I believe. And it’s also good for skin tones!

      Interesting about your friend – grounds are one area I really haven’t delved into yet. It’s been all about the paints so far. I’ll get there.

      That is a lovely color swatch on the wool. I’ve gotten a pretty decent blue from indigo, but not that bright!

      Got the Victoria Finlay, it’s a great book. Thanks for all the comments!

  6. ruben Says:

    Just happened upon this site somehow while looking for “natural art mediums” for kids. Glad to find it. Fellow artist/gardener/writer here, nice to meet y’all. I look forward to learning about homemade pigments, as this is an area i, too, am trying to turn to more and more. Thanks for writing and please keep it up whenever possible!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Ruben, thank you and welcome. Some of the paints I use in oil painting are quite toxic and definitely not for kids, but many of the natural ones would be great for such a project. I think the natural lakes and natural earth colors would fit the bill nicely. You might take a look at my post How to make a lake pigment if you haven’t already. More to follow…

  7. Ann Yarger Says:

    You’ve never been able to grow tomatoes. šŸ™‚

  8. Michelle Says:

    Just found your blog and am looking forward I reading more. I’m just beginning to get a dyer’s garden together and am wondering if you have any sunsikell seeds to sell/share?

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi Michelle,

      I unfortunately do not have any sunsikell seeds at present, having failed to keep a garden of them going. At some point I will order some more from the Mediterranean if I am able; when I do, I will post the results here. – L.

  9. Lynn D Says:

    Thank you for the information on this plant and your adventures in growing/suing it. It looks so much like a native in the west called Tukey/Dove weed. Might try to find some and see it has color possibilities, though heard it is poisonous.

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