Natural Dye Plants:
some of my favorites to grow & use
This coming growing season of 2019 will be the 7th year in a row that I’ve grown plants for dye. Every year since then has been different, from the plants I’ve chosen to grow to the time I’ve have available to tend to them, to the actual locations of the gardens. I’ve had the opportunity to start gardens in varying locations from a London allotment community garden, to Brooklyn street-side tree pit garden beds, to a beloved family orange grove in southern California. The first winter in London leading up to sowing seeds for natural dye, I spent planning and researching a garden with a beginners ambition to grow it all-every variety of interesting dye yielding plant, I wanted to grow! It was quite a lesson in understanding my limits of attention and mind-space to care to so many different types of plants and what can be done in one single zone. For the past few years I’ve focused a bit to grow only my favorite plants that really provide a nice array of color and that have given me great yield. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a beginning to a list of dye plants that I love to grow and have provided seeds for sale on my website- so as an additional offering, I’d like to give some information on how you might like to grow and use the dye plants as well!
If you’re looking for alternative places to purchase dye seeds with other plants aswell, I suggest:
Sulfur Cosmos ‘Cosmos Sulpheurus’- yellow/orange/brown
Sulfur Cosmos ‘Cosmos Sulpheurus’
I began growing ‘sulfur’ or ‘orange’ cosmos with the intention to quickly brighten up the rows of the orange grove attached to our house during a spring that lead up to a 6 week summer road trip with my family. Needless to say I chose the right plant to direct sow (simply dropping the seeds in the ground after laying drip irrigation and mulch), and then basically neglect for much of the growing season while gone. It was an incredible plant to see thrive in a hot and dry climate with mediocre soil- even after it became apparent upon return from my trip that somehow my garden had been suffering from thirst because of a kinked irrigation hose, the cosmos were survivors! Come to find, this plant actually starts and germinates BETTER with poor soil. sowing the seeds in soil that hasn’t been amended with fertilizer or manure will result in more plants and they really can be grown anywhere from zones 2-10. They will thrive in a nice sunny spot. I love this dye plant so much, not only because of it’s hardy nature, but because of it’s prolific abilities to create so many blossoms. I really couldn’t keep up with the picking once my plants got started flowering, and if you’re pragmatic about several staggered sowings, you can have a blooming period from april to november!
GROWING & USING: Cosmos plants are annual- needing to be replanted each year- however they will readily self seed in the garden and their seeds are some of the easiest to save for future years. Start these seeds with average soil and barely cover (maybe an 1/8” dirt on top). They should germinate within a week or so (ideally at 70 degrees F) and make sure they get plenty of light during the first few weeks of growing to ensure healthy mature plants. If you’re starting early you may even like to use a grow light especially if your seed starting space isn’t getting much direct sunlight for more than 8 hours a day. Once they’re established and planted out (after they’ve grown to 12” or so) you can ‘pinch’ the tops to encourage the plants to go bushier and create more blossoms. The bright orange flowers are zingy and vibrant- and make for incredible fresh flower hapazome (flower pounding- as shown in these images) and can be dried easily to save for winter time dye bath making, bundle dyeing, or paint making- see my kits here for examples of how versatile these flowers can be.
Japanese Indigo ‘Persicaria Tinctoria’- blue/aqua/teal/green
Japanese Indigo ‘Persicaria Tinctoria’
I’ve grown japanese indigo without fail for 7 years running and hope to keep this growing tradition going for all the years that I have the color cultivating verve left in me. It may not be the easiest or lowest maintenance (it’s quite a thirsty and rich soil loving plant), but the decent availability of seeds and temperate climate thriving nature of this blue-producing plant makes it the number 1 choice for anyone seeking their very own home-grown blue, especially for those gardeners in non-tropic regions. I bought my first seed packet of persicaria tinctoria (at the time more commonly known as ‘polygonum tinctorium’) from Rowland Ricketts and have since been able to save my own seed for a few years now- making my seed stock the great great great grand blue babies of a beautiful indigo renaissance that Rowland has been instrumental in cultivating in North America. His website has a good deal of information on growing japanese indigo, so I would highly recommend visiting and learning there as well, but to begin with here, I’ll share briefly what I have learned from my practice as well.
GROWING & USING: Japanese indigo is an annual that will need to be replanted each year. Their seeds tend to lose quite a bit of viability after one year, so when purchasing seed- be sure to inquire the year that they were harvested, or when saving seed-be sure to use it within 1 year. I initially began selling natural dye seeds (starting with japanese indigo) because my supply of seed saved far outweighed my future immediate need. I had thousands upon thousands of seed harvested from a few plants, with a need for only a few hundred that year, and knowing that the seed was really only fresh for one season, I decided to share what I couldn’t use. To start indigo seed I recommend taking the time to soak them overnight before sowing to reduce the germination wait time. Once sown in rich soil (japanese indigo will really thrive throughout it’s whole growing life with rich, fertilized soil) they will germinate within a week and will appreciate as much sun as possible, and if you have a grow light- all the better for the first few weeks while they’re getting established during the early spring low natural light period. From the first few weeks of life and in onto their mature stage, you may also like to foliar feed (or spray their leaves) with fish emulsion fertilizer to keep them supremely happy and all the more likely to give beautiful blues. And like cosmos, I try to pinch the tops of my japanese indigo plants once established (about 12” tall) to promote more bushy growth- creating a harvest with much more leaf bounty! To see how incredible pinching really is for indigo leafiness- check out Ecotone Threads Resource section and documentation of ‘pinching’. Japanese indigo is not tolerant of frost- so be sure to start seed indoors or well beyond the threat of frost outdoors for a late summer harvest. After the plants are mature (usually when they’re reached 2.5-3’ tall) you can harvest to extract pigment (with larger quantities of plants-usually 20 or more plants is recommended for the effort involved) or to fresh leaf dye on a protein fiber like silk or wool. I’ve posted a tutorial on fresh leaf indigo dyeing on my blog here and hope to add another tutorial this year on my blog outlining a process of using only cold ice water, fresh indigo leaves and salt to coax indigo onto cloth for all interested in getting the most out of their indigo plants! I’ve also enjoyed experimenting with fresh Indigo leaf hapazome (pounding into natural fabric) to make blue/green prints that don’t need a mordanting process for lightfastness. If you are growing more than a few plants and would like to learn about extracting pigment to save for making a ‘reduced’ true indigo vat to dye all natural fibers (the fresh leaf method results in superior light teals and turquoise tones on wool and silk especially), check out my ‘Making Indigo’ highlights story saved on my instagram and I would highly suggest becoming a member of the Indigo Pigment Extraction Facebook Group started by Seaspell Fiber for a vibrant community of indigo growers all over the world extarcting pigment and sharing information.
Purple Pincushion Flower ‘Scabiosa Purpurea’- purple/pink/grey blue/green
Purple Pincushion Flower ‘Scabiosa Purpurea’
I have had a joyous few years growing and using purple pincushion flowers in my dye garden and studio. They’re a beautiful addition to any growing space and create long stemmed flowers ideal for floral arrangements, that can also easily be dried or used fresh by the natural dyer at the end of their life as ornamentals. In the first few years of my natural dyeing practice, I had grown other anthocyanin rich (anthocyanin~ the antioxidant capable flavanoid colorant held within the plant responsible for it’s pink/purple appearance) plants such as black hollyhock, hopi purple sunflower and purple basil for dye purposes, but discovered the possibilities of purple pincushion flowers after paying a studio visit to my friend and ever inspiring natural dyer- Kristin Morrison of Love All Species. She had a gorgeous stack of green/blue dyed raw silk on her table that had been dyed with purple pincushion flowers. The color she had achieved was unlike anything I had ever seen from one singular dye plant- and I soon ordered seeds for a variety called ‘Black Knight’ Pincushion flower for my garden. I’ve since grown this lovely plant & saved seeds for 3 years running and currently have some for sale in my shop. Because of the anthocyanin based dye held within these flowers- the colors produced from this dyestuff are not extremely light-fast, so I suggest using them on well mordanted fibers (a mordant is a pre-fixative that helps hold the color to the fabric- mordants can be plant or mineral based) and I prefer to use this dyestuff on protein fibers like silk and wool- as I’ve seen the color hold much better. It is also a pH sensitive dye that can be fun to play and experiment with. The colors resulting from purple pincushion can range from purple/pink, to green, to blue grey depending on the water composition (acidic/alkaline) and the mordant used. My favorite way to use them is in bundle dyeing- the puffy round flower heads are composed of dozens of little flowers that can be plucked off individually and sprinkled on fabric for a bundle dye composition, making this flower a powerful little bomb of color where a small handful of flowers can make quite a colorful impact.
GROWING & USING: This specific color of Pincushion flower (dark purple to maroon) is an annual and must be replanted (or allowed to self seed) each year. You can start these seeds indoors in late winter to early spring in average to well-fertilized soil, protecting them from potential frost until they’re established and can be transplanted outdoors in warmer weather. They can grow well in containers as well as in the ground and will appreciate well draining soil and a sunny spot. Germination will also be improved with a bit of light, so just barely cover (if at all) the seeds with soil, and a grow light may help speed up germination in early spring. Once established and the plant starts blooming, it’s best to pick flowers often, or ‘dead head’ the waning flowers to keep the plant producing blooms for a longer period. You can choose to use the flowers fresh for bundle dyeing, making little solar dye baths in mason jars, or fresh flower hapazome (pounding flowers for prints into fabric that has been pre-treated or ‘mordanted’) as you harvest throughout the summer, or dry them to save until you have a good quantity for making a dye bath. Because of the anthocyanin based dye held within these flowers- the colors produced from this dyestuff are not extremely light-fast, so I suggest using them on well mordanted fibers (a mordant is a pre-fixative that helps hold the color to the fabric- mordants can be plant or mineral based) and I prefer to use this dyestuff on protein fibers like silk and wool- as I’ve seen the color hold much better. It is also a pH sensitive dye that can be fun to play and experiment with. The colors resulting from purple pincushion can range from purple/pink, to green, to blue grey depending on the water composition (acidic/alkaline) and the mordant used. My favorite way to use them is in bundle dyeing- the puffy round flower heads are composed of dozens of little flowers that can be plucked off individually and sprinkled on fabric for a bundle dye composition, making this flower a powerful little bomb of color where a small handful of flowers can make quite a colorful impact. I’ve also had fun in making paint with pincushion flowers (as pictured) and my children love playing with purple pincushion paint pH (adding a bit of lemon juice or baking soda) to make 3 different colors from one extraction (pink, green, and purple).
Madder ‘Rubia Tinctorum’- red/orange/pink
Madder ‘Rubia Tinctorum’-
Madder root is the queen of natural dyes. Although she is very important to as a rare source of true plant-based red in the natural world, she is quite an investment in time, taking a minimum of 2 years before her precious reds can be reaped. Don’t be discouraged though by the time and patience needed to grow your own red dye, as the color truly is worth it! I was elated to finally be able to dig up my own mature madder root after 7 years of waiting. I had started from seed and planted madder root on three separate occasions in the UK, New York and California since 2011, but due to having a somewhat vagabond nature and young baby, coupled with a demanding job, my first 2 madder harvests never happened. This year I was keen to finally bask in the red making glory that is homegrown madder root and look forward to much more experimentation and dyeing.
GROWING & USING: Madder is a hardy perennial plant that once established will creep and sprawl and can have the tendency to invade ground space in a garden, so it can be practical to grow it in a large planter, container or raised bed to keep it somewhat contained- this will also make harvesting much easier, so that when you dig up the roots, you won’t have to worry about disturbing other surrounding plants. If you have a friend or know someone growing madder, you can ask for a cutting from their plant to get a jump start, but you can also start from seed- I have seeds available in my shop here. If you plan to grow madder for continual yearly harvests, I highly recommend checking out Ecotone Threads blog post on ‘Strategies for a Continued Harvest’. To start plants successfully, I’ve found that my madder seeds benefit from a light scratch of their seed coat on sandpaper (scarification) and then either an overnight soak in water the day before sowing or a quick soak in hot water (scalding- up to 180F) for 5 minutes right before sowing greatly improves germination rate. Expect to see seeds wake up in 1-2 weeks, keeping them covered in 1/2” moist soil after tamping down, and warm at 60-70F if possible to encourage the best possible germination. After they’ve started, you can plant them out a few weeks later when they’re tall and strong enough to be moved and transplanted. They will appreciate well-draining soil. Madder root will produce clear & more vibrant reds after at least 2 years, especially in alkaline, lime rich soil. You can amend your soil with garden limestone if it is acidic to raise the pH to slightly alkaline (pH of 8 or 9) which encourages more alizarin content in the roots (alizarin is the main red dye component that is so very much valued in madder). As the plant begins to shoot out meandering stems in the first and especially 2nd summers (in winter it will go dormant and die back), encourage more root growth by bending stems into the soil at a node and covering. I have trialed a bit of extraction with my fresh homegrown roots (see images here) and documented a bit on my instagram. I hope to do more dyeing this year and post a bit of my experience on my blog for how to process homegrown madder for natural dye, so stay tuned!