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My forager bag of sassafras root bark.

Color from Sassafras Root Bark

Today I experimented with sassafras root bark to see if it will make paint. I use the leaves of sassafras trees to get a nice bright yellow color. Ordinarily, I avoid using plant pigments because they tend to be fugitive, meaning they fade or discolor with time. Some plant pigments, like the green I get from china berries, will completely disappear within a few days of sunlight exposure!

But the yellow from sassafras is different. Not only does it not fade, it actually intensifies when exposed to UV light. I’m curious if the root bark will do the same thing.

Once I get the paint finished, I’ll make a post in my Color category over at my Paleo Paints website. I’ll link to it here when it’s done. In the meantime, here’s some pics and a little about what I’m doing. It’s all an experiment. I’ve never used the sassafras root bark before, so it could work or it could be a waste of time. Well, not really a waste of time because even learning what does not work is often worth the effort.

Experimenting with Sassafras Root Bark

So far, my little test batch didn’t yield very much usable pigment, but I went forward with my experiment anyway to see how it comes out in the end. I got lots of color in the water, but the lake process didn’t seem to collect it. I’m not sure what to do about that, so I’ll have to try again later. I just hate wasting what little of the bark I have on failed experiments!

Papery yellow-orange bark on the roots of a sassafras tree that fell over.
Papery yellow-orange bark on the roots of a sassafras tree that fell over.
The color only released from the sassafras bark with heat, so I simmered it for a little while.
The color only released from the sassafras bark with heat, so I simmered it for a little while.
The sassafras root bark was still the same orange after extracting some color. Maybe I need to heat longer or with more water?
The bark was still the same orange after extracting some color. Maybe I need to heat longer or with more water?
The lake pigment settling. Not too yellow.
The lake pigment settling. Not too yellow. We’ll see how it does after I filter this out and dry it. It’s already been washed a few times by adding water, stirring, and letting it settle and draining it down.

Waste of Time?

I don’t consider failed experiments to be a waste of time because at least I know now what *won’t* work. The problem is that I’m not sure why. Is it because I didn’t use enough sassafras root bark to make a strong enough tea? Or is the color in the water not attaching to the alum or calcium carbonate enough? The water was still stained yellow after I’d finished, so maybe more chemicals were needed. Until I try again, with some different parameters, I just won’t know.

A Second Experiment

Before I began the lake process, I used some of the tea to mix directly with some raw gum Arabic. After the gum dissolved, I strained it and added enough honey to make it a yellow-stained media. So when I mull this lake pigment, I’ll use that yellowish media and maybe it’ll help add more yellow to it. Plus I’m making some cubes of the yellowish media by filling my molds with just that. Maybe after it evaporates down, it’ll be concentrated enough to show a sheer yellow on the paper.

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16 April 2020 8:49 pm

[…] and flaky once it’s had time to weather in sunlight and rain. I harvested the bark from a tree that had washed offshore at one of the low-water bridges along Felkins creek in Madison county of northwest Arkansas. […]

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11 December 2019 4:20 pm

[…] what I was after. If you want to read all about my first attempt, I posted about that over at the WildOzark blog. If that link brings you right back here, leave a comment to let me know. I may need to change […]

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