By Nikki Tiley
(Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden)
In today’s world, we grow edible plants so we can eat healthier, but very few people think of growing plants to dye with. There has been some evidence that the commercial products used to make vibrant colors in our clothes can be just as dangerous as the commercial chemicals used in growing our food. The solution? Growing your own dyes!
Plant dyeing was once the only source of dye available and used for anything from paint and makeup to fabric coloring. Not everyone is aware, but an abundance of natural sources of dye come from plants, many of which we grow in our own gardens.
History of Dye Plants in Gardens
While the art of creating dyes from plants isn’t as commonplace as it once was, it can still be a fun and rewarding activity for gardeners and children alike, especially when used as a teaching tool in the garden. For instance, did you know most plants have histories dating back centuries or longer?
Indigo, for example, has been grown and cultivated for thousands of years specifically for its blue colored dye. In fact, Egyptian mummies were found to have indigo-dyed cloth. It has been popular for use in paintings since the Middle Ages and for dyeing blue jeans in more modern times. But that’s not all this plant is famous for. Indigo was once commonly used for its medicinal properties as well, such as in Chinese medicine where the plant was used as a pain reliever, fever reducer, blood and liver purifier and for treating inflammation.
Joe-pye weed is another plant with an interesting past. While many view the plant as just a weed, it’s far from that. In fact, its pretty purplish-pink flowers make an attractive addition to gardens, and both the flowers and seeds have been used throughout history in producing pink or red dye.
In addition to its coloring properties, this plant was also utilized for healing. Joe-pye is said to have been named after an Indian healer in New England that used the plant medicinally to induce sweating in people with typhus fever. Going back even further, the genus name, Eupatorium, is said to memorialize another healer, first-century Mithradates IV Eupator, king of Pontus, who was reputed to have used a plant from this genus as a pain reliever.
Growing and utilizing plants for dyes is a great way to incorporate this into history lessons. Many historical gardens and similar places offer information for dyeing plants. Additionally, there are tons of companies that specialize in this area, like the Woolery, a fiber arts supplier which provides many books and related resources on plants for the dye pot, including seeds for growing specific dye plants.
30 Plants for the Dye Pot
So if you’re interested in learning a little history in a fun, hands-on way, why not start by growing some of these plants in your garden. Since there are far too many to name, let’s start with 30 plants commonly grown and used for dye pots.
Note: Often, to get colors to take easier, mordants (such as alum) are used when dyeing plants. Depending on the type of mordant or plant used, there may be slight variations in the ultimate color. For more information, you can check out Woolery’s Natural Dye Plants and Mordants page.