Sappan wood – brasilwood from India – some history, background, and recipes

Sappan wood (Ceasalpinia sappan) has become my favourite source of red color for now. Native to Asia, it is the “older” cousin of what is now known as Brazil wood. When the Portuguese invaded what is now Brazil in 1500, the redwood trees they saw growing there reminded them of Sappan wood, which they already knew, called it pau-brasil and used for dyeing along with the rest of the Europe. Because of extensive use for dye and for violin bows, or perhaps the opposite, because the dye business was not economically profitable after the invention of the chemical dyes, or maybe due to both these reasons, the Brazil wood (Ceasalpinia echinata, Paubrasilia echinata) is almost extinct now, Wikipedia says that the trade of Brazilwood is likely to be banned in the immediate future. So now we are back to the good old Sappan wood, which is still available and abundant in India and China. It is used medicinally in both Ayurveda (where it’s called Pathimukham) and in Traditional Chinese medicine (where it’s called Su Mu).

You can buy it from the natural dye suppliers (like maiwa), but they usually sell sawdust, which for my taste is too thin (though it is supposed to release the dye more readily), and ridiculously expensive. I prefer thicker chips so that I can see what the wood actually looks like, so I got some from an Ayurvedic supplier in India, but I also saw the sappan wood of Chinese origin on e-bay, and in some Chinese herb stores.

The Brazil wood has been used on eggs in Ukraine, according to Kulzhynsky (1899) for the red dye, and according to Korduba (1899) for the black. (I have achieved black from sappan wood with iron, but it makes no sense to waste a perfectly good source of the red dye and make the black dye from it instead, unless you recycle the red dye into black after you’re done dyeing all your eggs red, or if you after-mordant the red egg with iron water to make it black, which I have not tried yet, so I’m not sure how it would work. Anyway,  I wonder whether Korduba is actually confusing something, or maybe getting unreliable info from his sources). Here’s what sappan wood dye looks like with alum (red) and iron (black) mordants:

It is quite possible that Sappan wood would have been used in Ukraine along with other imported goods, like it was used in the rest of Europe, before the Brazil wood became available. In fact, it is not clear, whether the mentionings of Brazil wood refer to the actual Brazil wood, or to Sappan wood, since that name first belonged to Sappan wood, so which one is meant can only be implied based on which one was more used and/or cheaper in a particular period and place.

I used two different recipes for sappan wood dye, both worked well, the firsts one though seems to give darker, more intense color, at least when it’s new.

Recipe #1: (double quantity, reduce by half if only dyeing single regular size eggs)

50g wood chips soak in 1.5 l water, add pinch of calcium, simmer for 4 hrs, let cool overnight, strain, (dry chips and save for making lighter color in the future), add mordant (alum for red, iron for black).

Recipe #2:

1 cup wood chips, 300-400ml water, boil for 10 min with alum, cool, strain, use. Here I use this general rule for amounts: put as much dyestuff as you can fit (or as you have), add water – the amount you need for the dye+ some extra to account for evaporation.

It gave me this intense pink on white egg:and a solid red over coreopsis gold:

Sappan wood is antibacterial, antimicrobial and anticoagulant, but besides medicinal uses, it is also used to purify water for drinking. No wonder, this dye does not spoil, and I mean ever! After a month of sitting on a hot window sill, where the dyes from fresh leaves do not last 3 days and from extracts a week, this one still works, has no “friends” whatsoever and smells nice. It’s been used a lot, so the colors it gives are less intense now, but here is orange after coreopsis gold, and then pink after the egg has been etched to white:The chips after being cooked once can be dried and cooked again, the dye probably won’t be as intense as the first round, but will still be usable probably for the colors similar to the old dye above. I haven’t tried this, but I know people who did.

Fabric dyers say that sappan wood dye (along with other redwood dyes) is somewhat fugitive to light, so I’m going to expose some of these eggs and will see what happens. To counter that issue, the dyers in the past had recipes combining redwoods with madder – the madder would benefit by being brightened and livened, while the redwoods would benefit from madder’s superb (best of all red dyes) lightfastness. I might try this at some point also. However, all of this was done with extremely elaborate recipes, complex mordanting, and all of the things that we won’t be subjecting eggs to for still a while, and who knows, maybe we won’t need it. Both madder and the redwoods are said to prefer hard water and calcium in general, so the marriage between that color and the egg shell might be made in heaven.

I guess, we’ll see, in the meantime, see whether you can get your hand on some, and if you do, give it a try.

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