In this story, we are going to revisit the porcupine (matues) and its colourful quills which have been used by many generations of Mi’kmaw artists to adorn clothes, baskets, furniture, and many other things.
The strong red (Mi’kmaq: mekwe’k) colour of these quill adornments was derived from a local weed called “stiff marsh bedstraw” (see my October column). Very intricate designs were made using striking reds and yellows (wataptek).
How the quills were coloured yellow in earlier times is a fascinating story which involves a wonder drug called berberine and a common local plant with the charming name of “canker root,” alluding to its primary use. Berberine, which has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, is a compound which belongs to a class of chemicals called alkaloids and is produced by several different plants. It is sold in powder form as a nutraceutical and is purported to lower blood sugar, help with weight loss, lower the risk of heart disease, and aid in treating various other chronic disorders such as venereal disease and alcoholism.
To add to its impressive list of benefits, berberine is a bright yellow compound that is a very effective natural dye. It is the compound that colours the beautiful rhizomes (underground stems) of our common plant called “goldthread” (wisowtaqji’jkl ) which is the plant that was used by early Mi’kmaw artists to turn porcupine quills a bright yellow.
The Mi’kmaw name tells us a lot about the little yellow plant. “Wisow” refers to the gold colour, “taq” refers to its placement on the ground, “ji’j” indicates small or tiny and the “kl’ makes it plural. The other common name for this miraculous plant is “canker root” because it has been used since early times by Mi’kmaq to treat ulcers of the mouth. It is truly a multi-purpose medicine and Tom Johnson of Eskasoni tells me that he used to pick wisowtaqji’jkl for his grandmother, the late Caroline Gould of We’koqma’q. She used to make eye drops with it as well as combine it with bear fat (Muino’mi) to make a salve for skin problems.
The scientific name for goldthread describes its physical appearance. “Coptis trifolia” is derived from the Greek word “kopto” meaning “to cut” and the Latin “trifolia” meaning “having three leaves.”
So, look for a low-lying plant with leaves in triplets and bright yellow rhizomes and you will probably have found goldthread. It is common in some areas of the forests and boggy areas of the biosphere but not in areas that have been logged. In our biosphere, Tom tells me that they find goldthread on sphagnum moss under the shade of spruce or fir stands.
This little plant has a widespread distribution from the Carolinas to northern Labrador according to the Plants database maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture. How do we know that this miraculous plant was the one used to dye porcupine quills in the time before commercial dyes? In her book Micmac Quillwork (Nova Scotia Museum, 1982), Ruth Holmes Whitehead summarized reports and stories from the 18th century missionaries who visited the island. Those gentlemen talked about goldthread producing a yellow dye. It turns out that goldthread was used by many Indigenous people all across Turtle Island (North America) to dye porcupine quills.
In a large scientific study, Christina Cole and Susan Heald visited five museums in Canada and the United States, analyzed samples of dyed porcupine quills from their collections, and reported the results at the Textile Society of America Symposium in Nebraska in 2010. Christina and Susan used some very sophisticated equipment to analyze compounds and determine what plants were originally used to dye the quills adorning garments from as far back as 1790 in an area called the “Eastern Woodlands” of North America. Using tracers from native plants, they determined that the majority of yellow quillwork in their samples was accomplished using goldthread.
They were also able to trace the presence of some other compounds on the dyed quills. Interestingly, they found that early quill artists used bark teas from native trees to augment the dye colours and to aid in the attachment of the dye particles to the quills. In modern terms, the compounds in the bark teas were “mordants,” a term derived from the Latin meaning “to bite.” The bark trees identified in their study included maple (jioqsmusi), a common tree in our biosphere. These modern scientists also found the presence of many different compounds in some quills. Those early quill artists employed quite a sophisticated technology, using practical chemistry to get the palette of rich, natural shades which have stood the test of time!
If you are strolling through our biosphere, take your camera and record this wondrous plant in its natural habitat. Then upload your photos to: I Naturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/), a Web-based platform which is very easy to use.
Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist, a board member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association (BLBRA) and a natural dyer. For more information about the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association, please visit: http://blbra.ca/or their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/blbra/.