Did you know that you can grow a rainbow in your garden that will extend far beyond the flowers, vegetables and fruits that you harvest?
You can color your world with beautiful hues obtained from dyes made from the blossoms, leaves and roots of many plants you can grow in your home garden. Many people find the colors obtained from plants to be more aesthetically pleasing than most synthetic dyes. One possible reason for this is that natural plant-based dye colors each contain several different color molecules as opposed to the singular color molecules of many synthetic dyes. This gives a color that is easy on the eye, more easily mixed with other colors and refreshingly different.
In addition, the palette of natural colors is often more desirable than the garish single-minded palette handed to us by Madison Avenue, regardless of what Miranda Priestley might opine in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.”
The best thing about natural dyes, however, is that you can grow them yourself. Whether your garden is a patio with containers for plants or two acres to spread out, you can raise plants that will produce gorgeous color for all of your textile projects.
When dyeing a textile, a substance must be used as a mordant to bind the dye color molecules to the textile molecules. Many different mordants are used: salt, vinegar, alum, iron, tin and chrome, to name a few. Because natural dye colors can vary by the type of mordants used to “fix” the dyes to the textile, many different colors can be produced from one plant. Therefore, it is a good idea to begin by growing the three primary colors: red, yellow and blue.
The best red color is usually obtained from the roots of the Madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). Although this plant is only hardy through Zone 7, in our area it can be brought inside during the winter or otherwise protected from the cold. Using alum as a mordant will produce a clear red. Other sources for red dye include the roots of Lady’s Bedstraw (Gallium verum) or Dyer’s woodruff (Asperula tinctoria).
There are a number of good candidates for producing yellow dyes. In our area, some of the best and easiest to grow are Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) where you would use the flowers, Weld (Reseda luteola) using leaves and stems either fresh or dried and the flowers of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Marigolds (Tagetes petula) and Correopsis flowers also will produce yellow dyes. They are easy to grow in this area as well. The root of the Turmeric plant (Curcuma longa), which is easy to grow but needs winter protection as it is basically a tropical plant, makes an intense yellow to orange dye.
Traditionally, blue is obtained from the Woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) using fresh leaves. This is the dye of the ancient Celts; however, despite its romantic history, it has a very invasive nature and Washington state has listed it as a Class A noxious weed, so don’t be tempted to plant it in your garden. In its place, indigo (Indigfera tinctoria) leaves have also been used for thousands of years. Indigo dyed fabrics have been found on Egyptian mummies that have retained their blue color. Indigo actually has more of the blue pigment than Woad but is a little fussier to grow as it prefers a tropical climate. You can still grow it successfully in a greenhouse, or by bringing it inside when it starts to get cold.
There is no reason to have a separate flower bed for your dye plants; they can be mixed in with other flowers, herbs or even vegetables. The main thing is to consider the type of growing space and condition your dye plants like and plant them accordingly. Once you have chosen the plants you would like to begin with, double the number of plants you think you will need. You will find that natural dyes need a lot more material to produce enough color for your projects than you might think. A hint would be to start with dyes made from blossoms as you will generally have a lot more to work with in your first year. If you are going for root-based dyes, you might have to wait a season or two to get enough material for your dye bath unless you are able to buy large, live plants to start with.
Although it is more work to produce these beautiful natural dyes, the results will be well worth the effort. To follow the path of textile artists who have been using them for thousands of years is a tremendous feeling, and the fact that for the most part these dyes are much safer for people and for the environment than synthetic ones is icing on the cake. It should be noted that even in the plant world there are plants that are poisonous or dangerous to humans, and some mordants can be caustic or dangerous as well. A good rule of thumb, as in all endeavors, is to always know your ingredients.
There is a glorious rainbow waiting for you in your flower beds or pots. What can you create with all those incredible colors?