Buckthorn for inks and pigments

I have been trying for quite some time to find Buckthorn berries in the wild. It’s surprisingly difficult. When I started in the SCA first, or rather, when I decided ink making was for me having found the SCA, I found the Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library’ pamphlet Medieval Manuscripts Some Ink & Pigment Recipes and I was very keen to get myself a full set of inks or plausible inks style pigments in black, red, blue and green.

It offers two such

The recipe for green ink
Take ripe seeds of the shrub caprifolium, that is in English gatetriu, and grind them together well in a mortar; afterwards, let them boil thoroughly in wine, at the same time adding to the concoction iron that has rusted. This is a brilliant green ink. If you want to make cloth or leather green, smear some of this on it with a paintbrush.

Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, Mappae Clavicula. A little key to the world of medieval techniques in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, vol. 64, part. 4, 1974.

The second reads

GREEN & RIPE BUCKTHORN BERRIES (RECIPES BT-1, BT-2, BT-3 and BT-4) To make a good green with buckthorn.-
Take small berries of buckthorn when quite ripe, put them into a glass vase, and crush them well with your hands; then place them in the sun, and let them remain until the juice rises above the berries; then strain the refuse, and throw it away, and if the juice weighs one pound put into it the weight of two quattrini* of roche alum in powder. Place the mixture in the sun in a well-closed glass vase, and let it stand three or four days, stirring it well three or four times every day; and if it should happen to dry after a time, distemper it with clear ley, with a little gum.

Segreti per Colori (Secrets for making colors), composed in Italy in the early XVth century, which is found in Original treatises, dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth centuries on the arts of painting, in oil, miniature, mosaic, and on glass; of gilding, dyeing, and the preparation of colours and artificial gems; preceded by a general introduction; with translations,prefaces, and notes. Mrs. Merrifield. v.1, Merrifield, Mary P. (Mary Philadelphia), London, J. Murray, 1849, p. 420.

In the early days I thought the “seeds of caprifolium” – a particular type of honeysuckle meant actually dried seeds but have come to think it’s the berries, which are brilliant red that turn black, that are what’s intended. Buckthorn – alder or purging buckthorn (rhamnus frangula or rhamnus cathartica) also have red berries that turn black, (as opposed to the now far more common sea buckthorn – various Hippophae – which has orange berries prized for their vitamin content. )

I was just about to go try honeysuckle berries without much hope of discovering particularly caprifolium when I came across another version of the first recipe:

To make green colour. Take grains called gazeir  by the Saracens, which the Romans call caprifolium, and grind them in a mortar, and thoroughly boil with iron rust, and thus you will have a green colour, a little black. But is all boiled with vinegar.

Writing recipes for non-specialists c .1300:the Anglo-Latin Secretum philosophorum, Glasgow MS Hunterian 110, Mark Clarke

which included the notes ” which notes that caprifolium is gatetriu in English, i.e. ‘goat tree’ or, perhaps ‘goat rue’ (Galega officianalis, ‘goat’s rue’ contains flavonoids and tannins), or Vibernum tinusor cornel (dogwood). Audemar §199 gives the English equivalent as galetrice. Both specify wine not vinegar. If it is some kind of rue, perhaps the eruginato is verdigris, since rue appears as an additive in many recipes for tempering verdigris. Apparently a particularly English recipe”

First the idea that verdigris rather than iron might have been intended is very interesting, it definitely calls for science. Second I looked up gatetriu, because I’ve been having a *lot* of fun realising translations and meanings aren’t anything as reliable as I used to believe lately, either for me or my sources, and I was starting to wonder..

Entry Info

Formsgaitris n. Also gaitresgattrisgaterisgaitre, gaitesgatisgaite.
EtymologyCp. gate-triu goat tree, honeysuckle, gōt 5b. Also cp. MnE dial. gaiter tree dogwood, etc. & Swed. dial. getbärs trä buckthorn.
from the Middle English Dictionary

Definitions and Subsenses
1.(a) In phr.: ~ beries, some kind of berries used as a laxative; berries of the honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum or L. caprifolium), ?berries of the common European buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), ?berries of the European dogwood (Cornus sanguinea);

So.. did they mean honeysuckle really, or did they actually mean purging buckthorn, already widely known as a dye for yellow and green colours? More science! I also get to start trying to grow buckthorn – (native to Ireland and Europe, I checked!) and hopefully encourage biodiversity as well as providing myself the means to conduct this science.

Alder blackthorn (rhamnus frangula) is very definitely Irish native, and I’ve been trying to track it down with the help of biodiversity maps and word of mouth for a while now, but the last forestry specialist I spoke to said they’re quite rare. (They are, on the other hand, considered invasive in the States. ) Both buckthorns are deciduous shrubs, growing to between 3–6m tall that grow in wet soils in open woods, scrub, hedgerows and bogs, thriving well in sunlight and moderate shade, preferring acidic soils. It has an important place in wildlife conservation being one of the food plants used by the Common Brimstone butterfly, and birds, particularly thrushes, love the berries. I’ve gotten seeds for both and am taking careful note that they have a deep dormancy and I will have to do a bit more looking after them that just sticking them in a pot and hoping for the best. I could just buy a bush from futureforests.ie too, but I reckon making my own small buckthorn plantation will supply all my future pigment and dyeing needs as well as supplying for others, and it sounds like encouraging more growth for biodiversity purposes would be good.

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