Sap green

I’ve been neglecting the blog, because I’ve been insanely busy with getting my portfolio together, building my site, etc. But I’ve been experimenting with this and that as I’ve had time. Some of my recent adventures: an anthocyanin blue from geranium blossoms; an iron weld lake; shopping for a dragon’s blood tree; studying carmine in the wild; the first really successful madder lake from my garden plants (and figuring out how to make a dark and a light madder lake from the same batch); and the finding and purchasing of a natural-lake oil paint, from a very mainstream company, that has been out of circulation for most of a decade. I’ll share all that stuff with you, but for today I’ve prepared an article about sap green:

Sap green is a traditional color that enjoyed popularity from medieval illumination all the way through the Romantic era of watercolor painting. It is a warm, yellowish green, transparent, tending toward olive in masstone and a brighter, livelier green in tints. As an artist’s color it has been quite useful to many artists, filling in a difficult mixing area of the color wheel, supplying beautiful and interesting transparent green shadows, and lovely mixtures for foliage. It is fugitive, of course, like most natural organic colors, which is why it fell from vogue in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern synthetic greens that were more lightfast became widely available.

The color sap green is derived from the berries of the buckthorn plant. The usual plant used was rhamnus cathartica, or common buckthorn, which is found in the British Isles. The cathartica part of the species name refers to the fact that the buckthorn berries can be used as an emetic, and the plant is often mentioned in older medicinal treatises.

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

The dyestuff in Northern Europe is common and economical, and yields a beautiful color – small wonder it was popular for so long. The plant has been naturalized in parts of North America, and has become quite a problem in those areas, because common buckthorn can be very invasive. It spreads rapidly and aggressively, has no natural enemies on this continent, and quickly takes over an area of woodland, squeezing out the natural flora, and in the process some of the natural fauna as well, as they lose their traditional food sources to the invader. My original excitement to try growing this plant was dampened considerably upon learning of the problems associated with it.

I’m quite a fanatic about natural colors, of course; so, while I am an adamantly against risking introducing an invasive species into the ecolocality in which I live, I nevertheless spent some time in negotiations with myself. The common buckthorn is invasive in much cooler and wetter areas than southern Californa; there is little way the plant could be as successful here. In any case, the plant reproduces sexually and needs both a male and a female plant to spread; I’ll just get one plant, I reasoned, and so I’ll be safe. But in the end, I decided sadly that it just wasn’t worth the risks. I want to grow plants that can have a future in my garden and others – common buckthorn clearly doesn’t fit the mold, at least not on this continent. (The closest thing I have to an invasive species is madder, which is spreads agressively through root runners. But madder I feel confident I can control by killing it off if necessary, mainly because the birds and other animals of the area are not interested in its berries or seeds, so the chances of it spreading without my knowledge are greatly reduced. Common buckthorn does not have that element of safety; its berries are enjoyed and spread by many varieties of bird.)

If you happen to live in an area that has been invaded by common buckthorn, you have every opportunity to make some real sap green; for goodness sake go out and pick some berries. Every berry you use is one that cannot spread the species further.

There is another, non-invasive species of buckthorn that is actually much better suited for the hot and dry weather of California, being from the Mediterranean area of the Old World: rhamnus infectoria (or rhamnus saxatilis), the same buckthorn that is used to make stil de grain yellow lake. While a green can be made from the berries of this plant (depending on how ripe they are), it is much better used as a source of the lovely yellow stil-de-grain. You can get the berries from dye shops. I’ve been thinking of getting some seeds and growing a shrub in my garden plot; unfortunately, they seem a bit difficult to come by.

This is one of several posts I’ll make concerning the importance of localism in thinking about the sustainability of artist’s colors. If I lived in Northern Europe, sap green would be a primary color on my watercolor palette. Here in the American Southwest, it can’t be.


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13 Responses to “Sap green”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    invasive in cooler and wetter climates than CA, eh? that sounds suspiciously like my neck of the woods. I think what you really need is a co-op operation. I’ll go hiking and pick you some berries if you send me that elusive recipe for rose madder! 😉

    the irises have really gone wild btw. seems like every day the leaves are bigger, and there are more of them. I have no doubt that I’ll have a load of flowers to work with this time next year! (i planted some moonflower seeds behind them which aren’t going so wild. in fact i’m not sure any of them have actually sprouted. it’s about the 3rd year i’ve tried to grow them – and to my knowledge they’re not supposed to be difficult to grow. weird luck, isn’t it?)

    • sunsikell Says:

      I should have posted a pic of the common buckthorn plant in the article above, perhaps I’ll edit and do so. Here’s a couple of maps of the range of cathartica:

      National Park Service

      I can’t say I hope you find some… it will be far better for your locality if there are none around! But if you do find some, you should definitely try them out…

      I will share the madder recipe when I’m ready, I promise. Whether I wind up writing the book or not, it should be shared here. Give me a chance to brew up a couple more batches, and I’ll make sure you’ve got it.

      Glad to hear the irises are doing so well!

      • Chrissy Says:

        Thank you – I’m very excited to get a rose color out of the madder instead of the earthy orange!

        i think my buckthorn hunting is a bust, unless i go hiking out of state. according to the US department of Agriculture, i’m not likely to find it. WA is one of the states they list where it’s not found. you should reconsider hiking in your own area though – at least according to the department of Agriculture.

    • llawrence Says:

      Chrissy, as I’ve been out hiking I’ve noticed many plants that look like some sort of buckthorn, but I’m not enough of a botanist to know which kind they are. There are several varieties endemic to California, including our own rhamnus californica. One of these days I’m just going to grab some random berries and see what happens…

      • Chrissy Says:

        Sounds about like me and the lichen I acquired by chance last winter, which I remember you encouraged me to experiment with. I’m still not savvy enough to know what kind of lichen I’ve got – but experimenting with a small batch was fun. It’s definitely not the type that will turn purple (which I have to admit is a bit of a bummer). but you know, now that you’ve reminded me of that experiment, now would be really good timing to do a larger batch and dye some wool with it. I’ve got a bunch of dried daffodils waiting for me too. I think I’ve got a good project ready to go the next time I’m stuck indoors on a rainy day – which happens here more often than i like!

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I wonder if i can find buckthorn in the wild here in Virginia. I will be on the hunt. I am excited to hear about this undisclosed paint company that has been out of circulation! I am always looking for new bottled natural pigments. I still use Windsor Newton genuine madder NR9 and plant charcoal PBk8. I have some carmine NR4 watercolor from Sennelier…and natural peat van dyke brown NBr8 from Holbein. I feel like there are very few natural pigments on the market other than mineral, ochre, oxide pigments. It is great you found another!

    Oh I found this a while back. It is a wonderful supplier of student art supplies for waldorf schools. Actually really amazing that these organic pigments are being manufactured in masses to teach children. I have always wanted to buy a set.

    great post! look forward to the next!!!!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hey Jeremy: looks like the two maps I posted in my reply to Chrissy include Virginia in the common buckthorn range. Hope you don’t have any around, but if you do I hope you find it and try some out!

      I can see I wrote a sentence poorly in the post. It wasn’t a paint company that was out of circulation, but a single paint tube from a well-known company. You mention NR4 in watercolor from Sennelier – I have that one too, it’s a nice watercolor. Winsor & Newton used to make NR4 in oil, and I’ve been on the hunt for a tube for a while now, not really expecting one to turn up. But I found one on ebay and grabbed it! It is truly lovely, I’ll post a review after I’ve tried it out in a painting.

      The Artemis colors: I had seen that before, but I’d forgotten about it. Thanks for reminding me. Looks like the watercolors are indigo, madder and buckthorn. I admit I’m a bit incredulous of the colors in the Plant Dyed Colored Pencils they show, especially the blue. What could they be using for that?

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Wow! I see buckthorn is major invasive species here. We have a lot of invasives here like kudzu, mimosa, paulownia due to the humid climate. Although the paulownia trees are absolutely beautiful. I have used the lumber too. It is a great wood light and sturdy. I have built some surfboards and sculptures with it. Paulownia here is so invasive that they will grow out of rock formations on the mountain tops here. Because we live near Monticello. The folklore here is that the seed pods were use as packing and shipping shells for China Dinnerware for Thomas Jefferson. They threw the pods out and they grew like wildfire. I wonder if I can walk around the parks here and find wild buckthorn growing?

    I am stoked you found that color. I was on the hunt for W&N carmine myself a few years back. I luckily stumbled on some in the sale bin at Utrecht in Milwaukee. I believe they stopped producing it ? and it is a very nice red, indeed. I have those colored pencils from Artemis. They are very nice. They do not disclose the pigments…and that blue is very brilliant for a plant pigment. I also wonder what pigment they are using. Maybe it is time I will write Mercurius and ask. Cheers!

    • llawrence Says:

      Jeremy, I am sorry to hear there’s kudzu where you are. Definitely one of the bigger screwups perpetrated upon this continent! – along with Japanese beetles, zebra mussels and many others. And buckthorn!

      Hey, congrats on the Belly of Flea paints and inks at etsy – that’s awesome!

  4. Kathryn Braithwaite Says:

    Very useful for me.Thanks.

  5. Marcus@dry organic pigments Says:

    Its Quite a nice post…and is useful for us..Thanxx for the share

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