Dyeing with fruit pruning: apple, cherry and plum tree

Did you know that you can dye with fruit cuttings? In other words, with branches from the many fruit trees that are pruned every year - often in winter, when there are hardly any other dye plants outside. Some trees are even pruned again after the harvest. That means even more of potential for the dye pot! Because summer pruning also yields leaves for dyeing. However, you should definitely consider some things here.

This is about fruit trees that belong to the rose family: for example apple, cherry, plum or peach trees.
Maybe you have a tree like this in your garden or backyard, or ask around to see which of your friends could provide you with pruning offcuts. Or find out when the municipal trees in your neighborhood are pruned!

I already dyed with quite a lot of the above, and I also looked through my dyeing books again. Apple, cherry, plum, but also peach and nectarine trees are often mentioned, sometimes it's about the leaves, sometimes about the bark. Wild fruits such as blackthorn and hawthorn also belong to the same rose family.
Historically, all these plants (or parts of them) were used for dyeing. It makes sense, wild and cultivated forms of these fruit-bearing plants were very familiar and common to people.

Dye outside or with windows open

Before you begin: As a general rule, you should always ensure good ventilation when dyeing with plants. Ingredients such as essential oils or tannins can have a negative effect on us if there is too much of them in the air!
But with these plants, I find it particularly important.
Like other rose plants, they also contain hydrocyanic acid glycosides - especially in the seeds.
You may have heard this before, about peach pits, cherry pits, apple pits, bitter almonds...
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find reliable information on whether and how much of it is also in leaves or twigs and bark. If you know of any studies or literature on this, please let me know! No need to panic - but be cautious. So, what does this mean for you and your dye pot?

What are hydrocyanic acid glycosides?

Hydrocyanic acid glycosides - such as Amygdalin in plants of the Prunus species - are not initially toxic in the form in which they occur in the plant. When the plant's cells are destroyed though, glucose is split off from the compound and the toxic hydrocyanic acid is formed. (Which may be familiar from crime classics).
And hydrocyanic acid is volatile at a temperature of 25°C and above, and then evaporates.2 Lots of fresh air during dyeing 'dilutes' the vapor - that's why I've inserted this note here before writing about the actual dyeing.

I handle plants that are known to contain hydrocyanic acid glycosides in their seeds in this way: Unless I know otherwise, I assume that not only the seeds but also other parts of the plants may contain them. Also good to know: If plant cells contain hydrocyanic acid glycosides, they smell like marzipan when they are crushed (rubbed, cut or heated) - however, not some people can't detect this marzipan smell of hydrocyanic acid.

At least I have found information on the leaves of the peach: They contain a hydrocyanic acid glycoside that is similar to that found in the seeds.1 Although it is mainly the seeds of the rose family that contain hydrocyanic acid glycosides, they are also found in 'cotyledons, in (young) leaves', for example in rowan and weeping cherry.2

I think it's important to know all this before deciding to dye with these plants.

TL;DR: When dyeing with leaves or bark/branches of apple, cherry, plum and their relatives, I open the window wide or dye outside if possible.

Dyeing with apple trees, Malus domesticus

In particular, dyeing with apple tree bark is mentioned in many books. As early as 1532, that was the first time dyeing with apple bark was referenced in a dyeing book I know of! In that case it was bark from the wild apple tree, for yellow tones.
I finally tried it this year - not with the wild apple but the 'tamed' one, and was thrilled with the yellow color. The photo hardly does justice to the intensity of the color.

Stoffe und Wolle gefärbt mit Apfelzweigen Apfelrinde
first time dyeing with apple twigs

Instead of just using the bark, I used the thin branches from the apple cuttings, only peeling off the bark from thicker branches. If you only use the inner bark for dyeing, the result should be an even purer yellow.

As far as toxicity is concerned, Prinz's 'Dyer's Plants' states that apple seeds can be slightly up to highly toxic depending on the variety, other plant parts aren't mentioned. I haven't dyed with the leaves yet, but when I chopped and heated the twigs it didn't smell like marzipan or almonds at all.

In further experiments with apple branches and bark, I got results of varying intensity - the duration of the color extraction makes a difference here, and in further tests I would like to measure the pH value even more precisely. Very exciting!

Baumwolle, Seide und Wolle mit Apfelrinde und Apfelzweigen
verschiedene Gelbtöne mit Apfelzweigen gefärbt

Prunus family: plum, cherry, peach, blackthorn

There are three of them in my allotment: plum, cherry and peach trees. So I've often dyed with those.

However, I have not yet been able to dye with the wild relative blackthorn - I don't have a good source yet... The ones that I often walk past are in protected areas. Of course, I don't pick any twigs there, and I don't prune them either. The 'Handbook of Natural Dyes' says that sloe bark can dye red-brown. If I ever have the opportunity, I will certainly try it out!

I think the dried plum and cherry leaves smell slightly of marzipan - have you ever noticed that?
I used the branches of these trees to dye different, very beautiful shades, from salmon pink to a soft orange to a rich brown-red.

When I dye with the leaves, it's usually the ones from the late summer cut, and there was bright peachy pink. I recently had young cherry leaves in the dye pot for the first time, which were picked in May. And there was a surprise: this time it was a delicate shade of yellow! As with many plants, the time of harvest can of course play a major role in the result. There is always something new to learn with natural dyes!

Cotton, silk and wool dyed with cherry leaves from May

Dye books for reference

If you want to read up for yourself, my sources were Schweppe's 'Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe', Eberhard Prinz‘ ‚Färberpflanzen‘* and Jenny Deans ‚Wild Color‘* I have recommended them all here before in my article about books on dyeing.

1From Harald Nielsen ‚Giftpflanzen. 148 europäische Arten, Bestimmung – Wirkung – Geschichte‘ (='Poisonous plants. 148 European species, identification - effects - history') from the Kosmos field guide series - this is only available as an antiquarian book. If you know of a more up-to-date book on the subject that also deals with this aspect of the rose family, I would be happy to hear about it!

I owe the initial impulse on the subject of hydrocyanic acid compounds to my training as a plant guide at WildwärtsIt was about the topic in connection with rosehip seeds, and since then I have been trying to learn more about the topic in possible dye plants. The script for this module is also my source for 2.

Last but not least: All information has been researched to the best of my knowledge, but errors may occur. Pay attention to the correct handling of dye plants, and never forget that 'natural does not automatically equal non-toxic'! I accept no liability for any negative consequences.

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