Secret talents of leaves

Tattered leaves blow in the wind: red, orange, yellow, a few still green, torn prematurely from their lofty perches.

What secrets talents leaves possess.

It is autumn now. Even though summer has hung on stubbornly the last few weeks, it is time to give up, to let the flowers die a natural, withered death without water, allow the litter of leaves to lie in mounds until the branches are bare and cleanup is a possibility.

Still, some plants struggle to put out new life; the moonflower, which waited so long to bloom, has more flower buds now than at any time over the past  season. We have already had frost and her leaves have been damaged where the ice crystals touched them. I haven`t watered, so many other leaves are yellow or even drying out and turning brown. The patio raspberry, too, has been putting out bundles of

Amur Maple by Dorothy Dobbie

The Amur maple blazes, her colours released by the fallen poplar leaves.

ruby fruit.

It is a golden and crimson world. The Amur maple is suddenly brightly orange because the sunlight has been able to reach her as the poplar leaves fall.  No sun, no colour. The long, warm days of the past month have drawn out the pigments of all the trees in a parade of burning brilliance.

In the back yard, the apple tree is still mostly green, a contrast to its neighbour, the Amur chokecherry with its few limp, lemon and lime leaves reluctantly clinging to the sparsely decorated branches.

In my office as I write, the sun reflects its golden blaze off the orange Amur  leaves, lending a cinnamon glow to the room, an image impossible to capture on a mere digital camera  lens, but one that is burnt on to my retina.

Thinking of fall colour reminds me of my guest on CJOB this morning. Yusuf Chaman works with Ten Thousand Villages. His family started the artisan rug making organization called Bunyaad (meaning foundation) to provide fair trade employment for Pakistani villagers. He told me that certain gifted rug makers in Pakistan remember how to weave a rug using more than mere cognitive abilities and a pattern similar to what i used by knitters. The learning starts young and is developed through practice fed by desire-to-do. Yusuf remembers being rewarded for doing well with his homework by being allowed to tie five knots on his father`s loom.

For some, though, the expertise is nurtured by a deeply embedded mathematical skill that can be ultimately transferred to the fingers of the rug maker, allowing some of them to  automatically assign colours and count threads and knots; the finest rugs can have up to 2,500 in a square inch, taking a person his whole lifetime to complete one 9` by 12` rug. Even in the more common, 500 knots-per-square-inch rug, says Yusuf, the rug maker knows that in his lifetime, he will make no more than about 16 rugs. Perfection is the goal, each attempt better than the last.

To design the rugs, the people draw inspiration from nature, from the colour of leaves in autumn, and freshly sprouting plants in spring; from the blue of the sky and the varying yellows of the sun as it travels through the seasons. And in the villages, they still draw much of their colour from the bounty around them: red from pomegranate skins, yellows and browns from onion skins, walnut shells and marigolds, and blue from the magical indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) of Southeast Asia.

It is a bit of a weedy plant belonging to the pea family, but it has been delivering the dark blue dye for thousands of years. It is not the only plant to contain this magic. There are many others. In Europe and Britain, the colour blue was obtained from the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria), a brassica, which produces umbels of yellow flowers. In North America, the native species is Indigofera caroliniana.

Blue dye from these plants can be obtained by soaking the leaves in water, introducing as much oxygen as possible by beating or paddling the water, then allowing the mixture to settle. The blue dye will fall to the bottom and the water on top can be siphoned off, leaving the sediment, which can be stored as powder or a cake.

To use the dye, an alkali such as sodium hydroxide,  baking soda, lye — even urine — must be introduced to the dye vat to release the colour into water where it can be transferred to natural fibres such as wool, silk or cotton.

This complicated process stirs wonder in my mind as I think of what amazing plant knowledge and powers of perception the people of the past must have possessed to unlock such secrets.

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4 thoughts on “Secret talents of leaves

  1. Judy Saxby says:

    Loved the show on Sunday as well. The rug making is indeed fascinating.

  2. […] Secret talents of leaves […]

  3. […] Secret talents of leaves […]

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