Thursday, February 4, 2010

Red Kamala

Mallotus philippensis
These trees are fruiting beautifully around Prince Henry Drive at present. Only the female trees produce fruit, but the less decorative males are essential to the process!
This tree is native here in Australia, and in Asia. It is regarded as one of the world’s more important natural dyes. The colour is extracted from the red powdery covering of the seed capsules, and can be red, orange, or yellow depending on how it is treated. It has been in use for at least 3000 years in Asia for a variety of purposes including the “saffron” robes of monks, the red paste for the forehead dot worn by married Hindu women, a yellow dye for Indonesian batik, and paints used in wall hangings and decorated wood.
Ths internet informs me that the best reds are obtained by extracting the dye in lukewarm alkali-water (add bicarb of soda) - although some dyers seem to prefer to extract it in alcohol. Cold water seems to be better for yellows and oranges. The addition of a little sesame oil to the dye bath may help produce a brighter red, and the colour is also said to be brighter on wool and silk than on cotton. An alum mordant may help the colour to be wash-fast (but may also make it yellow, rather than red - I leave dyers to do their own experimentation).
Red kamala can be a very useful ornamental tree in smaller gardens. Its trunk is unlikely to exceed 30cm in diameter, and it is fast-growing and densely shady.
It is quite drought resistant (note its position on Prince Henry Drive) but tolerates only light frosts. Like many trees which occur naturally in dry rainforest and on rainforest margins, it probably grows best if sheltered when young, but allowed to raise its head into full sun as it matures.
The red seed capsule splits open to reveal three small round black seeds - the classic bird-attracting colours.
For good germination, it is essential to sow fresh seed within 4 weeks of collection.

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