Instead, I ordered special Hopi sunflower seeds from an American supplier, which germinated well and grew six feet tall. The yellow flowers attracted much attention from pollinators and from me, promising a wealth of seeds more exciting than any number of multicoloured petals. The seeds also appealed to squirrels, who ran along the top of the garden wall eating the best heads from the whole row, pretty much the same day I had decided they looked perfect for harvesting. If I had had an airgun, those squirrels would be enriching the compost heap now. The chief object of growing this variety was to try to get a blue dye from the seeds, like I read about in a book on Navajo and Hopi Dyes.
There were just a couple of plants the little sods couldn't reach. I dried out the seedheads, put them away and tried to move on from a dark vortex of squirricidal thoughts. In fact, I successfully blanked the whole traumatic experience, only to have a full horror flashback last week, when I went to the garden centre to choose this year's packet of sunflower seeds.
"You still griping about those squirrels?" My companion, Elinor Gotland, stopped trying to flirt with the nice young man from the garden centre staff, who still didn't seem keen to offer her a deal on a teak Steamer Sunlounger. "I remember you saying Hopi sunflower seeds weren't worth bothering with, anyway."
"Yes, you picked up a handful of loose seeds off the ground and had them in a jam jar of water on the windowsill, to try that solar dyeing business. Didn't look at all blue to me and when your bit of wool had been in there a week, it was pale grey and stank to high heaven. Put me right off my tea. To be honest, Beaut, those seeds were better off as squirrel shit, if you ask me."
There is nothing like a bit of opposition to stiffen the backbone. I weighed last year's seeds and found I had 200g, which looked about twice as much as the 'two double handfuls' specified in the recipe. Heated to below the boil and kept hot for half an hour,
the seed dyebath did go a deep maroon, just like the book says. At this stage, you are supposed to add a small double handful of ground native alum which is an 'efflorescence of drying soil' and it turns the dye a deep, royal purple. Hmmm. I've not noticed my pure alum crystals changing a dye bath appreciably, but acids and alkalis have done and who knows what was in that American soil along with the alum. I took three jam jars of dye, added vinegar to the first, which made it paler, and soda ash to the third, which made it darker, if not definitely purple. My money was on an alkali dyebath giving the best colour, but to experiment, I divided the whole lot into two pots and used more vinegar and soda ash to bring one down to pH 4 and the other up to pH 10. Not having a double handful of churro sheep fleece washed with yucca suds, I put into each pot 20g superwash merino tops, premordanted with alum. There was an instant effect. The wool in the acid bath turned cherry red and the wool in the alkali bath turned steel grey. Wish I'd taken a photo then, but I just put the heat on low and though it says 'bring to a gentle boil', I interpreted the temperature as below simmering and kept it there for half an hour.
Once the pots had cooled, the wool from the alkali bath had no colour at all, while the wool from the acid bath was deep maroon. I tried soaking the the white wool in neat vinegar, but no colour was revealed, so I'd guess the alkali and heat in combination destroyed the dye.
"Well, Elinor, that decides it. This maroon is much more interesting than that beige I got from the other sunflowers. I'm going to grow Hopi ones again this year. What a good job I kept a few seeds separately."
"It's a learning curve. For the next time, I'll remember that and I'll try an alkali bath without heat and maybe add a bit of iron or copper to modify the acid one. I might even be able to get some churro fleece and yucca roots this summer."
"I'll buy you a catapult for your birthday. And a bag of hazelnuts for the squirrels. On the subject of presents, I do think this garden could do with a nice sun lounger, don't you?"