Traditional dye plants offer intriguing materials for the gardener who is also a spinner or weaver, or who just wants to experiment with the vast usefulness of the natural world. Nature has its own subtle palette of colors and this little garden represents a few of the dozens of plant dye possibilities, which even include some nuts, fruits, vegetables, and other common foods.
And even if you’re more inclined to pick up some easy powdered dye at the corner store than to make a dye bath from the plants in your garden, you still might appreciate this connection to history and tradition. All of these plants are desirable garden plants.
About Dye Plants
A separate garden isn’t necessary to grow dye plants, as you can incorporate them into an existing flower border or bed (and you might unknowingly be growing dye plants already), but this small corner bed can give you ideas. Some, such as indigo and weld, are traditional dye plants, while others are more common garden plants and might surprise you. Growing the plants is easy, and if you have enough plant material to harvest, dyeing is a fun project and not difficult. But getting the most vivid colors from plant pigments and making more permanent dyes involves mordanting, or treating the fabric or yarn before you dye it with a metallic compound, such as alum.
Mordanting is a process that involves more than I can detail here, so do some research if you’ve never done any natural dyeing before. Different parts of the plants can yield different colors. The type of material you’re dyeing, the length of time you leave it in the dye bath and the type of mordant you use to pre-treat can also vary the colors, sometimes dramatically. Allow for some unpredictability; it’s part of the charm of natural dyes.
This garden is designed for a full-sun location with good drainage. Many of the plants are annuals, which also makes them suitable for interspersing in a vegetable bed. The indigo is perennial in climates with long, hot summers, or it can be grown as an annual in other locations. Also on this list is a perennial hibiscus shrub, called a rose mallow, which is hardy as far north as about Zone 5. Plant this one in a permanent spot in the garden, where you can enjoy its beautiful, large flowers from year to year. Yarrow and black-eyed Susans are also perennial and can be grown from root divisions from neighbors or from another area of your garden.
Prepare this bed as you would any other, pulling weeds and adding compost and other amendments to improve drainage and correct any soil deficiencies. Most of the plants in this garden can be started from seed indoors and then planted out after the average frost-free date in your area. Keep the bed well weeded, mulched and consistently moist until plants get established, then back off on the water, allowing the soil to dry slightly between waterings.
Harvest from the garden regularly through the season to gather enough material to fill a dye bath, and in the fall you can cut the entire tops off. Some plants are best used fresh, but flowers can be preserved in the freezer, and leaves, stems, and tops can be dried, either by laying them out on screens or by hanging them in a dark place that gets good air circulation.
Grow These Herbs to Make Natural Dyes
Yarrow (Achillea hybrids). The plant tops produce mostly yellow, tan and gold colors. It is a tough and hardy perennial in the garden and flowers from early summer to late fall.
• Marigolds (Tagetes spp. and hybrids). The flowers and leaves will produce a variety of colors, depending on the mordant, from bright yellow and gold to dark brown.
• Yellow cosmos (Cosmos surphureus). This annual flower blooms in yellow, orange, even red, including cultivars such as ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Diablo’ and ‘Sunny Red’. The flowers in a dye bath produce golden colors, oranges, and rusty browns.
• Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). This common, cheerful flower is an annual that can tower to 4 or 6 feet by season’s end. It yields an array of soft green colors in the dye bath.
• Hibiscus (Hibiscus hybrids), also called rose mallow. Look for red-blooming varieties of this perennial shrub, and in the garden, give it about 2 feet of space on all sides. Harvest the flowers as they bloom, as they won’t last more than a day or so. The petals can yield many colors, from purple and green to gray, even black.
• Indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa, I. tinctoria). This perennial shrub thrives in warm climates, and elsewhere is an annual. The fresh leaves contain the classic blue pigment.
• Purple basil (Ocimum basilicum purple-leaved varieties such as ‘Dark Opal’, ‘Red Rubin’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’). Annual in most climates, purple basil can reach about 2 feet. Use fresh tops in a dye bath for a variety of greens and browns.
• Marjoram (Origanum majorana). Generally an annual, this oregano relative yields yellows, oranges, browns, and grays, depending on the mordant used. It stays under 12 inches and is easy to grow.
• Weld (Reseda luteola). This biennial or annual is a traditional European dye herb, with flower stalks that can reach 3 feet or more. The leaves and flower stalks produce strong yellows and pale greens.
• Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.). This easy, popular perennial plant blooms summer to fall. The leaves and flowers produce golds, browns, oranges and dark greens.
• Goldenrod (Solidago spp.). This native perennial can reach 4 or 5 feet by season’s end, so give it some space. Plant stalks produce yellow and orange to tan, brown and rust colors.
• Zinnias (Zinnia elegans and other species). This easy annual bedding plant is available in both transplants and seeds. Harvest the flowers regularly to keep it blooming all summer. The flowers yield pale yellow colors.
To find out more about the process of mordanting and other steps for natural dying, try these two excellent volumes by Rita Buchanan.
• A Dyer’s Garden (Interweave Press, 1995)
• A Weaver’s Garden (Dover Publications, 1999)