Did you know that you can easily grow natural dye plants in your own garden — for dyeing fabric, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies?
In fact, chances are that you already have some plants in your garden that have dye properties. Common garden plants, such as marigold, Black-eyed Susan, fennel and blackberry all release pigment when simmered in hot water, so they can be used as dyes. So can many so-called weeds that grow wild by the roadside or in the less-managed corners of your land, such as stinging nettle, pokeweed, goldenrod, and yarrow.
You could simply start experimenting with gathering such plants from your garden or the wild. For basic instructions for natural dyeing, see here.
But if the idea of producing your own non-toxic, über-local colors is really exciting to you, you can create a designated dye garden.
Dye Plants are Everywhere
Before the invention of synthetic dyes in the 1850s, all dyes were natural pigments – from plants, mushrooms, minerals, or in some cases insects or mollusks. In fact, most plants around us release some kind of color if simmered in water. Mostly, they are faint yellows and beiges. Over time, dyers learned which plants possessed particularly strong and vibrant pigments, and started to use mordants such as tannins or rhubarb leaves to keep those colors strong. Coreopsis, marigold, lady’s bedstraw, madder root, weld and woad were all used as dye plants in Europe. Particularly vibrant blues, purples and reds tend to grow in tropical climates, and they were imported from places such as India and South America at a high cost that only the elites could afford. North American Indigenous people used plant dyes from bloodroot, black walnut, and sumac to dye basketry materials, moccasins, and cloth.
Here are some easy-to-grow dye plants for temperate North America:
- yellow: marigold, goldenrod, dyer’s chamomile, tansy, weld, Osage orange heartwood, onion skins
- orange: rhubarb root, madder root, staghorn sumac bark, tickseed sunflower
- red: madder root, pokeberry (with vinegar mordant)
- pinks and lavenders: lady’s bedstraw root, purple basil, blackberries, elderberries
- blue: woad, Japanese indigo, hollyhock
- tans and browns: black walnut hulls, oak bark, leaves, galls and acorns, staghorn sumac berry
- greens: comfrey, nettle (see note below)
(Note: Even though much of the natural world is green, a bright grassy green is one of the hardest colors to achieve naturally! Many plants, such as yarrow or Queen Anne’s lace, will yield a greenish yellow. Putting the fibers in an iron afterbath will turn yellows into olive greens. Overdyeing a yellow dye with a blue dye such as woad or indigo will produce the brightest greens.)
Many of these plants are multi-purpose plants. Marigolds repel pests in the garden; elderberry attracts birds and beneficial pollinators; comfrey improves garden soil; and black walnuts, fennel, purple basil, onion, rhubarb and blackberry are edible. So even if you have limited garden space, you can choose plants such as these that have multiple benefits and purposes.
Where to Find Dye Plants and Seeds
You can find seeds or starts for most of the plants on the list above from standard garden seed companies and nurseries. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.
But some plants are specifically grown as dye plants because they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments, and I recommend trying some of them. Some of the classics include madder root, Japanese indigo, woad, and weld. For these, you will probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below).
Planning and Planting Your Natural Dye Garden
Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small and then “roll back the edges” rather than take on more than you can manage.
Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage. Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil.
Most dye plants require 1-2 foot spacing, but check the seed or plant supplier’s specifications.
Here are four easy-to-grow dye plants that deserve a place in a dye garden:
Marigold is beloved by gardeners for its bright yellow and orange flowers and for its pest-repellent properties, which make it a great companion plant for many vegetables. It makes a sunny, bright yellow dye on wool, and a lighter yellow on cotton or linen.
The flowers can be picked all summer long and dried to save up a big batch for dyeing. To make dye, simply simmer marigold flowers for 30 minutes to an hour; then strain and add fibers mordanted in alum to the dye pot.
Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) yields a blue color – not quite the strong dark blue of real indigo, but lovely light-to-medium shades of blue. It has pretty pink flowers in the summer.
Space the plants about 10 inches apart. You can harvest the leaves several times in the course of the growing season. The extraction process for Japanese indigo is unique, but there are easy-to-follow tutorials you can follow.
Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) is an age-old dye plant for reds, ochres and oranges. Pigment from madder root was found on cloth in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb! As the name suggests, you harvest the dye from the root.
Madder is a perennial, and its roots have to be minimum 3 years old before you can harvest a strong red dye from them. It’s one of the easiest dye plants to grow: you can virtually ignore it and it will thrive. In fact, it is so sprawling and vigorous plant that you’ll want to either give it plenty of space, or plant it inside a raised bed box to confine the roots.
Weld (Reseda luteola) is an ancient dye plant that makes brilliant lemon yellows. It’s quite easy to grow and in fact it prefers less nutrient-rich soils.
Starts seeds indoors on seedling trays, The seeds are tiny, so sow them on the surface of a seeding tray. They must be kept consistently moist while germinating. Transplant to the garden after last frost.
As a biennial, weld develop two forms: the first year, the plant grows low to the ground in a rosette. In its second year, it sends up a woody stalk that can get 5 feet tall.
In the first year, you can start harvesting the leaves and flower stalks from July onwards. In its second year, you can harvest the entire stalk for dyeing. You can use weld either fresh or dried. Mordant yarns or cloth in alum before dyeing.
Books on natural dyeing:
- Rebecca Burgess, Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes
- Jenny Dean, Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes
- Rita Buchanan, A Dyer’s Garden
Online suppliers of dye plant seeds and starts:
- Strictly Medicinal Seeds: a starter pack of 7 dye plant seeds; also Madder root starts
- Elizabeth Anonymous: Japanese indigo seeds
- Etsy: many sellers of dye plant seeds
- The Woolery
- Fibershed Marketplace
Mari Stuart lives in Asheville, N.C., where she stewards an urban homestead with her husband and daughter. She is a Certified Permaculture Designer and Teacher and a Certified Ecological Landscaper, who cofounded Project Grounded, an initiative that connects urban consumers to the regenerative agriculture movement through their daily choices. She is currently working to develop a pioneering community-supported carbon farming program in Western North Carolina. Connect with Mari at Make Gather Grow and its Facebook and Instagram, and at Project Grounded and its Facebook and Instagram. Read all of Mari’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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