Jonathan and I are on the verges of the causeway road – at the Eriskay end, bent over and searching for something amongst the long grasses and along the banks of the ditches. It’s mid-evening, and the summer sun is low in the sky – dazzling the eyes and, with the heat rising from the baked rocks beneath our feet, the heat of the day is still too fierce for comfort.
We’re searching for something we’d last seen about here, a year ago, but not for something we’d lost, but rather for something we’d found. And found again – and again – each year at the same place, around the same time of year and under the same circumstances.
Ladies’ Bedstraw (Galium Verum is it’s botanical name ; Lus Chù Chulainn in Gaelic) is a low shrubby plant that is most common amongst shorter vegetation on damp to dry soils with ph close to neutral. In the Outer Hebrides, the plant is most commonly found on roadside verges, machair fields and tracks, and even on the landward side of the Atlantic-coast sand dunes. Before flowering, the low creeping stems with dark green whorls of tiny and spindly leaves being easily overlooked amongst the many more assertive plants with bigger and fleshier leaves ; but the massed clusters of bright flowers tower up above surrounding vegetation, forming drifts of lemon-yellow, contrasting distinctively with the gold-yellow of buttercups that so often accompany them.
The causeway opened to traffic the year we moved to Uist – sixteen summers ago. Over that time, the verges and banks of thin soils and bare rock have become softened with wild grasses and flowers – assisted by sheep grazing free-range from late Autumn to late Spring. Despite its far from robust appearance, Ladies’ Bedstraw has increased in both number of patches and their extent each year, regardless of the weather.
We pick only enough for our needs, moving on from patch to patch, We pick the biggest clusters – fully open, dry, and freely casting pollen, either by pinching off just below the lowest flower, or by using two hands. When we have two shopping bags full, we have enough, and return home for supper with home-grown gooseberries and double cream.
It is said that Galium Verum used to be known, in English, as Our Lady’s Bedstraw, after the tradition that it was one of the herbs included by the Virgin Mary in the hay used for Jesus’ cradle. That would have been before the Reformation, as Protestant theology rejected all traditions and beliefs outwith their own narrow interpretation of the Bible. But political correctness – or would that be religious correctness? – would be easily satisfied by impersonalization : the back-story would now be that the plant – when dry – was used in filling the mattresses for genteel ladies, and the name was simply and quietly curtailed to Ladies’ (or Lady’s) Bedstraw. There is an element of truth in both traditions : Dried, the plant has the soft scent of the organic compound Coumarin, which is mildly insect-repellant, and fleas in particular – by no means undesirable in a mattress!
The plant acquired other practical uses, which we know now to be more fact than fable, and some of which continue to this day :
- Flavouring : The whole plant would be used as an infusion to flavour alcoholic spirits, rather in the way that Gin is made.
- Curdling : The flowers were used to coagulate milk in making cheese (that is, acting as a rennet), also imparting a red colour to the curds and thereby the cheese ; and this is what makes traditionally-made Double Gloucester cheese the way it is. In Scottish Gaelic, the plant is known as Lus an Leasaich – The Rennet Plant.
- Dyeing : The roots will produce various hues and shades of red, depending on the dyeing process ; The flowers yield yellows
The last of these applications has been proved many times in our own dyehouse : or rather the yellow dye has. Digging up of wild plants (in this case to harvest the roots) is a criminal offence in the UK (and throughout the EU), and it’s a difficult plant to cultivate in the garden, as it won’t thrive on its own – its preferred habitat is sparse grassland, where it creeps amongst the other species – a state of affairs that’s difficult to replicate! Besides, the reds can be obtained readily from madder, to which Ladies’ Bedstraw is closely related.
So this time, as before, we’ll be using the Ladies’ Bedstraw flowers we’ve gathered to produce a yellow dye ; but not necessarily to produce a yellow wool!
The yarn to be dyed is white cheviot wool, previously mordanted with alum – which doesn’t noticeably colour the yarn.
Having trimmed the flower clusters away they’re transferred to a dye bucket on the electric hob, and after bringing to the boil and simmering, the flowers are removed using a sieve. Next I add a dash of blue : a concoction of reclaimed copper brewed in vinegar for a long long time. Then in goes the mordanted wool with a swirl, the bucket goes back on the hob, and its covered with a lid.
A good while later, drained, washed and dried, this is the result.
The darker shade, brown-green, is from the first batch – which takes the full force of the dye. The paler, acid green, is from the second batch.
Availability : We have five 50g skeins of each colour in the Hebridean Woolshed, available initially online, then any remaining in the garden shop.
Price : £9.00 per 50g skein.
Delivery : Flate rate of £4.95 to anywhere in the UK. If you’re also ordering regular items from our online shop, then we’ll combine postage to cut down costs.
Payment : Contact us to tell us the colour and number of skeins that you want, and be sure to give us your name, plus your email and delivery addresses, and we’ll reply with an invoice (or, for delivery addresses outwith the UK, a quotation for your approval).
Complementary colours : These co-ordinate beautifully with the heather brown of our Hebridean wools.
Queries : Don’t hesitate to contact us.