Coast Colours – Arbutus Bark

The beautiful arbutus tree (Arbutus menziesii) is one of the distinctive features of the Sunshine Coast.  Canada’s only native broadleaf evergreen grows in areas where the soil is rocky and drains rapidly and is often found along rocky shorelines.  It can also be found growing in residential areas.  The flowers, which open in April and May, are very attractive to bees and the berries are eaten by fruit-eating birds.


Sadly, arbutus trees are dying at an alarming rate on the lower Coast.  There are a number of fungi that produce dark spots on the leaves, usually in the fall and winter.  If the leaves are shed when the new growth develops it’s not considered a serious threat to the tree but if the leaves drop prematurely it suggests a deeper problem.  There are also fungi that produce cankers on the trunk.


On the Sunshine Coast there is an increasing number of dead trees and trees with few remaining leaves.  It can only be hoped that the trees will naturally develop a resistance to the fungi.  The best hope for the arbutus is to minimize stresses such as air pollution, disturbed roots and compacted soil, shade, excessive drought or water and injury.


The reddish-brown bark of arbutus trees naturally peels away in thin strips to reveal the young greenish to reddish bark underneath.  The ground underneath trees is usually littered with this bark which is easily gathered by dyers.


I put some gathered bark in a pot, poured hot water over it and let it sit for 2 weeks before adding the water and bark to the dye pot.


In ‘Craft of the Dyer’, Karen Casselman says that allowing tannin-containing dye plants (such as arbutus bark) to boil can result in dull, dark browns rather than rich brown shades.  She therefore advises keeping the temperature below 190F (88C) to avoid extracting an excessive amount of tannins.  However, I wanted to achieve a full rich colour so, remembering my experience with alder bark (see blog January 20, 2015), I allowed the bark to come to a boil and then let it simmer for 7 or 8 hours.  I added the fabric and fibre (pre-mordanted with 15% alum) when the dye bath had somewhat cooled and allowed them to soak overnight.  The next day I heated them to just below the simmering point and held the temperature there for 6 hours and then let them soak in the pot overnight.

Upper left is a silk cap, upper right a wool roving, lower right is a wool pre-felt, in the middle is tencil fibre and lower left is cotton which is actually a deeper brown then shown in the photo, suggesting that arbutus bark dyes cotton better than alder bark.  More beautiful colours from our Sunshine Coast plants!


Heather Apple

2 thoughts on “Coast Colours – Arbutus Bark

  1. Two years ago I solar dyed with arbutus . I put the bark in a jar, poured over hot water, let it sit for an hour or so and then added the threads and wools, put on the lid and let it sit on my deck in the sun for weeks. I managed to get some dark coppery browns. I have also discovered if I get the bark from our tree at the end of the summer (AKA drought….Gulf Islands), the color is better than once it starts raining again in the fall. I thought I would just share the solar dyeing success as you might want to try it.

  2. It is mid august and I am collecting the bark of a dozen arbutus trees on our land on Bowen Island. I will try the solar method and see what gives. It will be a project to do with my grand daughters. Thank you!

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