India Flint: The Botanical Alchemist

India Flint is a botanical alchemist. She dips, dyes and weaves magic into fabrics she finds and makes, with plants collected from the paddocks around her home in rural South Australia, or wherever she happens to be at the time. We had a chat about plants, fabric, and life. Here is what she said…

Can you please tell us a little about yourself, and your life with plants? Looking back, on both sides of the family there are passionate gardeners all down the line. I’ve always had a little patch of earth to grow things in and loved making cauldrons full of leaf potions as a child.

My first job was at David Thomson’s rare plant nursery; I went and asked to work there when I was 14 and probably should have paid him for what he taught me, not the other way around. Later I worked at Blows Brothers in the Sturt Valley, truly a magical place.

I can’t imagine a life without plants of some kind…and their fragrances bring back memories as much as the plants themselves. Grandmama’s lilies, freesias and violets, heritage roses grown from graveyard cuttings, gingko trees and crab apples grown from pocketed seed.

I have some of my favourite plants tattooed on to my arms and in some respects the world is my garden, I revisit favourite plants and navigate foreign cities by them.

I make my living from dyeing with leaves. Mostly I use eucalyptus [for the pieces I sell] but I’m always intrigued to experiment with whatever crosses my path. Most plants will yield some kind of colour.

Ideally I’d have gardens in a number of places around the world. The one in New Orleans would be full of magnolia, frangipani, indigo and ginger. Peonies, roses, lilies and Japanese maples on Russian Hill in San Francisco. And here at home my dream is to turn one of our paddocks, some 90 acres in size, back into the kind of eucalyptus + callitris + xanthorrhoea  savannah scrub it once was. But to pay for that I’ll need to finish writing that novel…and hope it sells well!

Why do you do what you do? In all honesty I think I am probably unemployable. I don’t respond well to authority for one thing.

I studied to be an architect but I don’t think I would have reacted at all kindly if a client had wanted to alter my design. I probably would have shouted “nein nein nein” in a filmic Tarantino-Hitler moment. But I very much enjoy wandering about and gathering leaves and dyeing cloth and teaching and writing and particularly making exhibitions.

Somehow I seem to scrape together enough to pay the bills while living a quite remarkable life and travelling a lot [which in turn lets me catch up with old and dear friends whom I would otherwise never see].

How would you describe your relationship with plants in three words? Symbiotic, devoted, wonderful.

If you were a plant, what would you be?  I think I’d be a Callitris preissii. Their natural habitat is on sandy soils in the arid regions but they can do quite nicely in areas of higher rainfall and don’t mind a bit of fog. The timber is has a spicy fragrance [very similar to Aesop’s Mystra, my sadly-now-discontinued favourite scent]. They grow tall and scruffy and can be a little prickly though the foliage is soft. I think they’re a lot like me…

What cheers you up? Weeding the garden and finding things growing that I had forgotten I had buried there. Lady Grey tea with milk and honey. And playing my saxophone.

What is the habit you are proudest of breaking or want to break? I sucked my thumb when I was very little. I don’t any more. I’d like to be better organised and not quite so untidy – trouble is if things are hidden away I forget they are there. Could that be squirrel syndrome? Possibly.

What is your favourite word? Seriously? One favourite word? Grace, gruntled, beloved, undulate, obstreperous, escarmouche, gargantuan… I love words. In my studio there’s an old cauldron that contains a drift of them scribbled on to random scraps of paper. From time to time I delve in there for a morsel of gold to add to a text I’m working on.

Have you ever been in love with two people at the same time ? Oh yes. But not dishonourably. No harm done.

Name a skill you wish you had. I wish I could ride a skateboard. Play the cello. Skid into a parking spot sideways like Steve McQueen. Properly strut and strain a fence.

What is the most played song on your playlist (phone etc)? Neil Young’s Heart of Gold is at the top of the batfone playlist…the one that always gets first airing on a roadtrip. But Oliver Schroer’s Camino album has been getting a serious pounding in the studio of late.

If you had to make a garden with three plants, what would they be? It’s a bit like having to choose a favourite child, this question. On a practical note I’d be thinking about food plants [like potatoes!], for my work I need eucalyptus, but then there are all the other plants that I adore…freesias and peonies and bourbon roses, madrones for their shape and bark and casuarinas for their windsongs even when the air is still.

If I really have to narrow it down then a quince tree for the blossoms and flowers, a Jude the Obscure Rose because it is just divine and a casuarina tree. Although it’s going to take some skilful landscaping to make those work well together…and I’m likely to add to it with cuttings nicked from plants overhanging any footpath I happen to totter along.

What makes somebody sexy? (apart from confidence!) They smell nice, have a rich sense of humour and a lovely deep voice. Nice hands and lovely eyes get my attention as well. Must confess I find men who are practical and can build and cook and chop wood rather attractive…toss in some kind of musical skill and I’d be lost.

What do you miss most about being a kid?  The unfathomable pleasure of utter irresponsibility.

What’s the first thing you notice about people?  Their eyes. Windows to the soul. And their smile.

What’s your favourite natural scent? Jasmine drifting in the window. Freshly grated nutmeg. That buttercream rose, Jude the Obscure. I love the smell of the redwoods in California, at home it’s the paddocks after rain. Freshly turned earth. Smoke from a callitris fire. Wild strawberries. I can’t decide.

What qualities in people do you admire the most? Kindness, loyalty and honesty.

What would you be doing in an alternate life or career? Playing my saxophone on the corner of Royal and Toulouse in New Orleans and running a one-day-a-week restaurant called “Sunday Lunch” cooking food from my garden under a you-will-eat-what-I-serve philosophy. Or working in a plant nursery, which was my first ever job and which I absolutely loved.

What’s your perfect three course meal? I’d begin with a lovely tossed salad, sort of Caesarish but with tomatoes, freshly grated beetroot, kale and roasted nuts as well with a hefty salutation of Crystal Sauce, followed by potatoes baked in redgum coals served with lashings of butter and sour cream and liberally sprinkled with pink Murray River salt and chopped fresh dill. And afterwards a lovely ripe Honeygold mango with some of that divine cumquat icecream that Mickey Robertson kindly whips up every time I visit Glenmore House. Yum. And then I’d probably explode as three courses would be too much unless I’d eaten nothing for the past 9 hours.

What is special about where you live?  The space and the big skies. And that in five minutes I can walk to my favourite hill and watch the sunset, the moonrise and if I’m out really late, the stars wheel and dance.

If you could control your dreams, what would you dream about? Quite often in my dreams I fly. If I could control my dreams I’d fly every night.

What’s your favourite kind of weather? I simply love that the weather changes.

Most days I’m just too happy to have woken up alive to do anything other than simply enjoy whatever the day brings, provided it isn’t a dust storm or a hurricane.

But I will say I love soft balmy days. I also love the first snow [which doesn’t happen all that frequently here in South Australia]. Fog in San Francisco gets me misty-eyed. That golden pre-thunderstorm light is pretty wonderful, too. And blue skies, especially here in Oz. We have the best ones.

How many people are you completely yourself with? I’m not good at being someone else, so I guess that means I’m just myself with everyone. Degrees of intimacy, now that’s another thing…there are probably a dozen or thirteen folk who truly get behind the garden wall. Those people who have seen me with tousled hair wearing my beloved tatty bear jarmies. The ones who hand me a cup of black joe at sunrise. They know me best of all.

You can follow India on Instagram, her website, blog, wordpress and Facebook. 

All images by Hayley Renee