The Art of Foraging – Learning Our Plants

Foraging for leaves and flowers to use in natural dying and printing is an art in itself.

At home I place them all in vases filled with water to keep them for a few days or so as I use them. At this time of year, I also start to dry and begin to store them for later use when the fresh crop disappears. Even with the arrival of next Spring, there’s precious little to find in the way of fresh printable leaves until Summer gets underway. It’s really not until the heat arrives that most of the buds become leaves and flowers. August and September  are when the bumper crops are in full array here in New England. So, already I am collecting for next year as well as for current use. In fact, I’ve just now opened the last layer from my October 2017 cache – prime time for printing now!

Setting Collection Up In Water
There’s a lot of Ailanthus, Tree of Heaven here, along with Rhus glabra, Smooth Sumac,  a similar looking shrub, There’s also some Queen Anne’s Lace and in the back there’s some barely visible Birch leaves.

Ailanthus, Tree of Heaven is a very invasive, non-native tree. I chose three videos that I find to be excellent for identifying this tree and it’s leaves, Each one has something helpful that the others do not, so they’re all worth watching particularly if you’re having trouble distinguishing between this tree and the Sumacs. I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring this out but after watching these videos, I think I’ve got it!


Now, onto the Sumacs!  Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), also known as Common Sumac and Staghorn (Rhus typhina) are the ones I find most plentiful in my town. It has white flowers in the Spring. Female plants blossom into red berries, aka drupes, at the top of the leaf spires. Alternate, shiny, pinnately-compound leaves with 15 to 25 leaflets. Leaves are teardrop shaped with serrated edges. Dark green on top, the undersides are lighter in color and smooth. Autumn colors shift from yellow to orange, red, even purple.

Smooth Sumac, Rhus Glabra. Photo Credit: (By: Richtid CC BY-SA 3.0)

These are safe, even edible, as opposed to Poison Sumac, which have white drupes, so pretty easy to identify so you can steer clear of it.  These berries may also be green or grey, but they won’t be red. You don’t even want to touch Poison Sumac because you can have a serious allergic response to it.

But the red berried Common Sumac is the best for its dye properties. And best yet, it’s a Native Plant here. You might want to plant it in your native garden. It does have fairly aggressive root rhizomes, so you’d want to choose its location carefully. It has no natural predators, so it roams freely. I’m looking for a partly shady, moist spot for it to keep it in check, probably in my back yard edging the wooded land.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) differs from smooth sumac by the long hairs covering its stems, leafstalks and drupes.

By Daniel Fuchs – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

I hope this helps those of you who, like me, have a hard time distinguishing between the leaves of Ailanthus and Sumacs! What have you learned? What plant do you think this is?


3 thoughts on “The Art of Foraging – Learning Our Plants

  1. Very useful post, Janis. I’ve four Staghorn Sumac in my ‘new’ garden here in Norfolk UK and just about to do a blog post about my first dyeing attempt with red ‘drupes’ I collected last autumn. And thinking about how to preserve leaves (in general). If I leave leaves to dry, though, I find they lose their colour and go brown. That’s even happened with leaves from a eucalyptus tree. I’ve frozen packets of leaves: some keep their colour, others go brown. Any ideas?


    1. LOL! Sorry, I just saw this as I was scrolling through my posts! I layer my leaves on cardboard with brown craft paper between a few layers before I add more cardboard and pile them one on top of the other, weighing them down to flatten and dry. While they don’t look great, I think they print better than any others! They need to stay in a dry place.

      Liked by 1 person

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