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  • Amber Rose Ostaszewski

Rabbitbrush

One of the joys of being in the space of fiber friends is that we love to share. Share techniques, tools, you name it! So when I was recently gifted some rabbitbrush, I was elated.


Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus SPP. or Ericameria SPP.) is a plant that thrives is alkaline, dry, western regions. Mine came from a former student, Cathy, out in Colorado. A weaver, dyer, gardener and teacher herself, she advised me to "think weld" in her note, alluding to the type of preparation this dye material required. Weld, of course, is a storied dye plant most natural dyers have had at least some experience with, producing vivid, almost highlighter shades of yellow, and is a favorite for overdyeing with indigo for luscious kelly greens.


My first impression of this plant were marked by the absolutely divine smell. I opened the box to be gifted with a breath of woody, very herbaceous scent. If I had to put my finger on it, it was a cross between wormwood and thyme, medicinal yet full of mystery. My second impression came through the colors and textures of the plant. As I held it my hand, the blooms felt dense and almost waxy, and the yellow hued blooms were soft while the stems held the essence of silver-tinged fronds, akin to the underside of mugwort leaves. The blooms themselves reminded me much of the local goldenrod I am so fond of, fluffy and characteristically cheerful, but there was something more profound about this plant that was yearning to be communicated.



Coaxing the color out of the plant was easy, it quickly turned the liquid a golden hue, but I gave it a full hour to develop before straining and adding a thrifted silk blouse, mordanted with alum. The take-up of color was also instantaneous, first a bright yellow, then a more mellowed mustard. I like to remember that most dyed goods appear 2-4 times darker than they truly are in the dye pot because of being wet, and that fabric tends to dry much lighter. Happy with a simmer, I removed the blouse, but it was calling for more. I wandered into my garden and picked a stem of mugwort before turning back inside to my sanctuary of rabbitbrush aroma. Using a hammer, I pounded individual mugwort leaves onto the surface, peeling them off one by one to reveal their unique silhouettes in a deep olive green.





I found that the rabbitbrush and the mugwort worked well together, and when I looked up the lore and medicinal uses of rabbitbrush, I was not surprised that many of the indigenous uses for this plant mirrored that of mugwort. Enrique Salmón wrote that the colloquial name "rabbbitbrush" comes from the tendency of rabbits and other small animals using it as a place of concealment--a place to hide from prey and other hunters. In a place like the mountainous west, it feels closest to a "hedge" plant, which is characteristically a trait I identify with mugwort in my own heritage and landscape. Salmón also notes that the plant is revered by the Hopi people, who add rabbitbrush to their prayer sticks, and has been recorded as being burned to drive away the cause of nightmares. When I read this, I immediately thought of my Slavic heritage which uses mugwort in a similar way. There is a long-practiced Polish tradition of curing someone who had a terrible fright by incensing the person with mugwort, or with burning flax and hemp, then drenching the person suddenly with cold water, before finally giving them a decoction of mugwort. It's also one of the many plants that makes an appearance in folk festivities during the Summer Solstice, used for protection.


While I did enjoy the yellow and olive green contrast, I ultimately found it was a bit too stark for my personal tastes and decided to give my blouse a quick dip in my indigo vat. I think it only furthered the protective, camouflage-feel that is so inherent in the signatures of these plants, and I feel proud to call this work of wearable art my own.




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