Colorful Coral Mushrooms

Most fungal dyes are relatively consistent in their results, but one genus’ color is nothing short of elusive: Ramaria spp.

Many characteristics of the coral mushrooms paint them as nature’s tricksters: they are notoriously challenging to identify because they can shift color over the course of their maturation, and their manifold branching can leave more up to chance than the other classic “mushrooms” when it comes to shape and morphology. Corals are less studied and published about (at least on the Internet) in beginner mushroom guides because they aren’t deadly, nor are they often edible (with the exception of some white corals).

Even a salmon color isn’t definitively diagnostic. I see this species all over the Northern California coast, from Marin to Mendocino, but it doesn’t quite fit the bill for either Ramaria formosa or Ramaria stricta.

Salmon-colored mystery coral found in Mendocino

As I’ve written about before, when it comes to dyeing, these mushrooms will often appear to impart very little or no color, unless given very specific conditions.

I’ve been lucky to experiment with Ramaria twice now with varied results.

Expectations

Literature about Ramaria highlights the importance of using fresh mushrooms, an iron mordant, and a basic (pH 9+) dyebath for best (or any) results. White corals tend to yield better color than the brighter species, contrary to what you might imagine. Dye colors in the range of mauve, purple, and grey are all achievable.

A Miniature Experiment

In February 2019, I encountered a small specimen of the mystery Ramaria in Marin. While the mushroom was fresh, I simmered it into a dyebath and ran a quick chemistry test which revealed that an iron mordant and a basic (pH 9+) dyebath would yield a lovely mauve.

I used the dye right away: 2 fists of mushroom with 25g of superwash sock yarn, 1g (a sprinkling, really) of iron added straight to the dye bath, and a pH of 9. The results were satisfactory on this small yarn sample.

Preparation

In January 2020, I collected quite the flush of corals in Mendocino. They appeared to be two or three species: many of the mystery Ramaria at various maturation stages, and a handful of smaller specimens that likely fit the bill for Ramaria stricta.

This January batch got simmered into a dye right away, and then the dyebath was left to sit in the closet until May. It is this bath I will describe in detail.

Materials

17 “handfuls” of fresh coral mushrooms for dye
  • 200g alpaca yarn
    • 17 handfuls of various coral mushrooms ranging among salmon-colored, mauve, and pink with yellow tips
  • large stockpot (just like in chemistry class, your dye utensils should not double as food utensils)
  • a rag to strain the dyebath
  • Synthrapol or a few drops of dish soap
  • chopstick or tongs (not used for food)
  • Ferrous sulfate (FeSO4)
  • jar for mixing iron water (a non-food vessel that can withstand boiling water)
  • household ammonia
  • pH strips
  • enough water to cover the specimen (to control for variables, it’s advised to use distilled and/or filtered water. I used tap.)
  • optional: instant read thermometer or infrared thermometer

Procedure

Yarn in the dyebath
  1. Fill the stockpot with water and add the fresh coral mushrooms.
  2. Bring to a simmer for 1 hour. Let cool and strain through the rag into jars.
  3. Let the jars sit for 4 months until there’s enough time and fiber to use them. (Note: this step is not recommended.)
  4. Soak the wool in tepid water in the stock pot with a drop of Synthrapol soap for 30 minutes.
  5. Rinse and squeeze all the soapy water from the yarn. Do not wring, as this will stretch the yarn fibers.
  6. Boil a cup of water. Stir in 7g Ferrous sulfate to make iron water.
  7. Fill the stockpot with fresh water for mordanting. Pour in the cup of iron water and mix evenly.
  8. Place yarn in iron water and bring the pot of water up to a simmer (180°F). Turn off the heat and let cool.
  9. When yarn is cool enough to handle, remove from the iron water and squeeze (do not wring). Rinse with Synthrapol to remove excess iron. Discard iron mordant bath.
  10. Pour the dyebath into the pot. Add ammonia until the pH sits around 9.5.
  11. Place the yarn gently in the dye bath. Bring the pot slowly up to a simmer (180°F).
  12. Simmer the yarn in the dye until the desired color is reached. After 40 minutes I observed that the color hadn’t deepened in the last 15 minutes, and the dyebath looked nearly exhausted.
  13. Monitor the pH throughout this hour and add more ammonia as necessary to keep the pH around 9.5 or higher
  14. Turn off the heat. Remove the yarn and gently squeeze out excess water. Hang the yarn to dry out of the sun.

Results

A lavender grey! As with any of these dye experiments, the camera just doesn’t capture the depth of the color, and the way it changes dramatically with different lighting. The evening dusk really brought out the purple.

Below is the lavender alpaca next to some other natural dye samples to give a sense of its range of color when dry:

Conclusion

The yarn dried a shade lighter than it appeared when wet, as is typical. I expected a lot more purple for how many mushroom fruit bodies went into the pot, but I suspect a few things contributed to this pastel:

  1. While the dye was extracted fresh, it wasn’t used fresh, and the color faded.
  2. Alpaca tends to dye less intensely than, say, superwash merino which is known for bright, intense hues. Superwash merino soaks up color like there’s no tomorrow!
  3. It’s possible the yarn didn’t take up enough iron to react with the dye. The electric burner I was using was taking a long time to heat up the pot, and I was cautious not to over-mordant. Wool proteins can turn tough in iron or at high pH, and this experiment called for both, so a cautious hand was better.

The yarn definitely has color, and the color works well with the other two coral mushroom yarns I have on file!

Chrysanthemum fructescens hat made with coral-mushroom dyed yarns

References

I highly recommend looking through the search results for “ramaria” in the Mushroom and Lichen Dyer’s United Facebook group for more examples.

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