Wild Plants to Dye For

Thu, 30/10/2014 - 11:45

…………from Wild Carrot to Woad!

Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) © Alvesgaspar

Natural dyes originate from the flowers, leaves, roots, wood and bark of wild plants, lichens, fungi and insects. Natural dyes are usually lustrous with subtle variations in hue, and can develop a patina, which ages beautifully. The colours have been described as ‘feeling’ as alive as the wildlife that yields them. Whether they are native or not, many of the wildflower names are steeped in history, notably Woad, Madder, Saffron and Indigo! 

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) © Pethan

Natural dyes can be found in the kitchen in edibles such as onions (amber yellow to rust), blackberries and beetroot (purple red), rhubarb (yellow) and carrot tops (soft green) as well as teas and coffees (browns), spices such as Tumeric (yellow) and food colourings such as Cochineal (reds). However, many of the beautiful wild plants to dye for, can be grown wild in your garden. Provided that you leave some for the pollinators, the flowers, leaves and roots can be gathered for dyeing cloth and wool.

Natural pigments can be fast or fleeting and those, which tend to fade away in the light, need to be ‘fixed’. This process is called ‘mordanting’ and is especially important if the plants contain no organic fixatives or mordants such as the tannins so common in tea and oak galls. The non-organic mordants are metallic salts such as alum (Aluminium potassium sulphate), used in conjunction with Cream of Tartar, common salt (Sodium chloride) and iron (Ferrous sulphate) , known since the middle-ages as copperas. Iron is often used as a modifier to calm down over-bright colours.  Different colours from the same plant can often be obtained by using different mordants or no mordant at all.

RED: Natural dyes were used for thousands of years before synthetic dyes were invented, and one of the best-known red dye plants is the Indian Madder (Rubia tinctorum), which is still used today. There is a native variety of Madder (Rubia peregrina) found in Cornwall, which produces a delicate crimson. Other red pigment producing plants include Dyer’s Woodruff or Sweet Woodruff and Lady’s Bedstraw.

Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) © AnRo0002

YELLOW: Two of the most common wild plants used by dyers before the 1800’s are Dyer’s Greenweed in the Pea Family, also known as Dyer’s Broom, and Weld, in the Mignonette Family, is also known as Dyer’s Rocket! Sometimes these two yellow dye plants have their names muddled up so following them via their Latin names will help.

Weld (Reseda luteola) © Kurt Stüber

Dyer’s Greenweed (Genista tinctoria) © H Zell

A whole range of yellows can be obtained by using wildflowers such as Tansy, from the Daisy family so beloved by pollinators. This plant yields a range of yellows from pale yellow cream through to a sharp mustard.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) © FIR0002

The colours of the flowers usually bear no relation to the eventual dye colour, for example, the bright-pink flowers of Saw-wort yield a bright yellow dye. 

Saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) © Hectonichus

And although Yarrow flowers ranging from white through to red, its eventual dye pigment is a soft yellow.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) © H Zell

St John’s Wort is probably the most versatile of the yellow pigment-producing plants, offering hues ranging from egg custard through to olive green, deep maroon and even black depending on whether mordants are used or not.

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) © H Zell

Other yellow dye wildflowers worth experimenting with include non-native Dyer’s Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) and native Golden Rod (Solidago spp.) and Dock (Rumex spp.).

BLUE: Few UK native wildflowers, apart from Woad, a naturalised rather than native plant originating from southern Europe centuries ago, can produce blue dyes as deep, vivid and lasting as Indigo, which comes from the tropics.  Some wild berries will give a blue or blue-black colour in combination with alum such as Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and Blackthorn or Common Sloe (Prunus spinosa).

GREEN: There are lots of red and yellow producing plants but plants producing green dyes are rare. However dyeing with blue Woad and then over-dyeing with a yellow dye from Weld will yield green, and indeed once gave the famous Lincoln Green cloth its unique colour, forever associated with Robin Hood!

However, there is evidence of dyeing going much further back than the Middle Ages, up to ten thousand years BC, so the history of dyeing cloth could represent the history of the civilized world.

All images from Wikimedia Commons
Wild Colours © Teresinha Roberts