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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Liu

Foraging for Colours

Wildflowers in Tamarack Nature Preserve.

I have never stayed more than a month in Minnesota. When I would be in Minnesota, it would largely be spent at the kitchen table, where my parents would be rolling out soft dough to make fresh dumplings and scallion bread, childhood favourites. As I caught them up with the latest news of my life, my parents would always verbally paint some kind of stunning scenery that they discovered -- a sea of red maple trees that stood on either side of their car as they drove up north, they describe the scene as if witnessing a version of the biblical Red Sea parting in half, or frozen-in-time waterfalls that they found in one of their walks along Lake Superior and seeing thick icicles that looked as menacing as Tyrannosaurus rex's teeth or what my mother would imagine T rex's teeth to look like. As soon as the last detail is told, in ritual, they will say: "You must go and visit. We can take you." For whatever excuse-- jet lag or work, the days fold into each other. And when I am ready to take a drive around, my parents are driving me to the airport.

My parents moved from Southern California to Minnesota in 2013. For the last 15 years or so, I mainly live between Ireland and the UK, and so Minnesota is a foreign place to me. I know little about its culture, history, natural terrain and people. The only thing I knew about Minnesota was the state's motto: "Land of 10,000 lakes." Having lived by the ocean for the majority of my life, what mesmerised me were the countless lakes that were randomly polka dotted throughout the state. Every few miles or so, I would see a new lake. Before Covid-19 descended upon us, my understanding of Minnesota was superficial and embarrassingly limited to Mall of America and Lake Superior.

Eagle Lake.

Since my last minute decision in March to fly back to the States, travel restrictions have afforded me an opportunity to explore the place that my parents call home. As lockdown lifted, I was itching to travel beyond the front garden. Since my mother was not keen on me taking a road trip due to all the unknowns about Covid-19, I started to look on Google Map and decided to locate all the lakes that were nearby the house. I was surprised to find around 7 or 8 lakes, all roughly 3 miles from the house.

Going out to these lakes, I soon discovered all sorts of public and hidden walking trails. Hearing the cardinals' romantic calls of pew-pew in the branches that canopied the walking paths and seeing buzzing bees weaving between bouquets of wildflowers, I started to notice all the different plants that were growing around me and took photographs of the different flowers, leaves and tree barks.

At home, I spent hours on the Internet looking for names of plants that were archived in my phone. From there, I began to learn whether they were native or invasive species. The deeper I dug, I discovered interesting stories about each plant and how they were traditionally used in history. Eventually, I started to wonder what colours these plants produced.

Since mid July, I have been walking around with tote bag hanging on shoulder and a small scissor in my pocket. Anytime I would come across an abundance of a particular plant matter, I would responsibly harvest a few to take home to boil down and see what colour it produced. The last two and a half months, I have been experimenting with 14 native plants and weeds that grow close to home. From these 14 plants, I played with different pH levels and also with making lake pigments. What ceases to amaze me is watching the fish skins steeped in the dye liquids transform, taking on the unique and rich colours that have been boiled out of the plants.

When peering into the dye pot, I am always surprised by what colour the plant produces, rarely does the plant produce the colour that I imagined it to be. Curly Dock seeps into a beautiful brick red. Goldenrod becomes vibrantly yellow, more brilliant than turmeric. Pine branches in the Summer produce a stunning burgundy red, but in Fall the branches produce a beige brown. Black Eyed Susans transform into a gothic-esque, metallic green-gray shade. Jewelweed surprises you with a sweet, aromatic, golden-orange. These are just a few examples of colours I have been able to forage in my locality.

Curly Dock.


Black Eyed Susans and Purple Coneflower.


What I have learned is that there are a colours all around us. Every season produces different shades. Every plant, weeds included, has a purpose. Instead of going out to buy ready-made paints and dyes that have chemicals, why not look around your garden or your usual walking trails? You might also find beautiful colours in empty car parks or abandoned fields. Be curious about the plants that surround you. It's amazing how we can walk through a park every day and not be aware of the beautiful, bountiful natural resources that surround us. Each plant holds a story, and when you make the effort to unlock each plant's story, you will start to realise how magical your place truly is.

When you do go out to collect, I ask that you be responsible and safe. Please don't take too much of anything. Also, if you don't know what that plant is, please don't touch it or collect it. Be sure to research first, figure out whether it's poisonous or not. Have fun searching for colours this Fall and also during the Winter. You'll be surprised to discover that colours aren't just only prevalent in Spring and Summer.

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