Posts Tagged ‘sunsikell’

Sunsikell seedlings

May 22, 2011
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


Walnut ink drawing

July 25, 2010
Walnut ink drawing

Walnut ink drawing

Here is a drawing made with homemade walnut ink – 9X12 on Arches hot press watercolor paper, cropped a bit. Once again a Steve McCurry photo provided the reference. I sketch in ink pretty regularly, as a way to practice and keep my hand in on an everyday basis, but normally I sketch with a ballpoint pen if I’m out and about. (My bosses know that sketching is the best way to keep myself awake and focused during a meeting!) When I’m at home, I like to use crow quill or brush, and a bottle of ink, preferably one of the inks I’ve made. Walnut is a favorite of mine.

I love ink drawings, but I don’t care for how tight mine normally are – I tried to force myself to loosen up with this one, with some success. Instead of drawing flat on a table, I put the watercolor pad on an easel and leaned it back, and held the pen as I would a paintbrush. I think it will be a good method for me, and I’m happy with how it came out. Ink drawing without making a pencil sketch first also helps.

There are instructions elsewhere for making walnut ink directly from rotten husks dropped by a black walnut tree – for instance here or here – and if you live in a part of the country with a lot of black walnut trees around, it is something that’s easy to do. I don’t live in such an area, so I bought my walnut husks dried from a dye company. (Actually, there is a “Southern California black walnut” (listed as threatened, naturally) and of course I’m eager to try it out when I happen upon one of them – but it isn’t the kind of black walnut normally associated with making ink. When I find some and try them out I will of course post the results here. I’m all about using local materials when possible.)

Filtering walnut ink

Filtering walnut ink

Anyway, if you go the same route I did, making walnut ink is about as easy as it could be. Simply cover the dried husks with distilled water and simmer them for an hour or three until you’ve got a nice thick dark liquid, adding more distilled water if necessary, then drain through a coffee filter as with the iris green. You’ve got a pretty ink! If you keep it for a while it will mold, and then you just filter it again. I add a bit of clove oil to mine as a natural preservative, it helps a bit. I understand that another ink can be made with pecan shells, and so of course I’ve got to try that as well.

Iris green – fin.

Iris blue?

Iris blue?

Incidentally, regarding the two previous posts: I have resurrected an old mystery surrounding iris ink. According to numerous medieval sources, it is possible to obtain a blue color from iris by “leaving out the yellow parts.” Thompson and others assumed that the “yellow parts” meant the pollen, but were confused that following the instructions doesn’t seem to work at all. I myself thought at one point that it may have been a bit of a medieval joke, based on green normally being derived as a mixture of blue and yellow. However, through experimentation I’ve discovered that the iris juice, or at least the juice from my more violet blue irises, will indeed paint blue, if one adds only a very small amount of alum. Perhaps that is what was meant? I don’t know why alum would be referred to as “yellow parts,” but then I’m not privy to the various inner meanings in medieval alchemy, puns, or insider codes. Anyway, it might be a possibility.

As the year progresses, the iris plants are producing fewer flowers – and those that are produced seem to have less color in them. Today’s little batch of ink is probably the last of the year, and it won’t be the best. I may not be able to really test my idea properly until next year. Iris green is definitely a springtime color…

Other medieval inks I’ve made besides walnut and iris green: brazilwood red, buckthorn yellow, saffron, folium red and turnsole blue (the color from which Sunsikell derives its name). All beautiful colors, which I’ll show and discuss in later posts. Medieval inks I have yet to make: iron gall, poppy and cornflower. The fun never stops around here!

What is “Sunsikell”?

December 7, 2009

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