Common garden plants grown for their color on and off the stalk

Story and Photos By LeeAnn Barton

Long before modern chemical dyes were introduced in the late 19th century, nature was the source of color. Fabrics and tapestries with rich color date back millenniums and some survive even today and are extremely treasured. It may have started as an accident – spilling tea or berry stains on a leather tunic. How it actually began may never be known. 

Plantsmen usually fall into one of two categories (and sometimes both): 1) gardeners who love color in all its contrasts and shades or 2) gardeners who grow things for their usefulness. Those who fall into both categories probably have or will soon experiment with the color their plants can create when cut and simmered in water. You may simply want to dye some Easter eggs or tint a piece of Aida cloth for a cross-stitch project. If you work with homegrown fiber (spinning wool or mohair into yarn) you may already have experience with botanical dyes. In this limited space I’ll share common garden plants that offer color on and off the stalk.

Tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria, C. grandiflora, C. lanceolata)
A very common wildflower in the central and southern states, coreopsis is also planted in annual and perennial gardens. Most species of the plant will yield good dyes, but C. tinctoria (tinctoria is Latin for “used by dyers”) brings about the widest range of colors. In the wild, these flowers tend to quickly go to seed. To prolong bloom and dye material, cut the plants back halfway after the first bloom. Stems, leaves, and flowers all produce the same colors and harvested material can be frozen for future use. A wide range of straw, gold, oranges, and browns will result depending on mordant and fiber.

Coreopsis and Mexican hat (Ratibida peduncularis) are at home in a wildflower garden. Plant coreopsis ‘Early Sunrise’ or ‘Moonbeam’ for tidier border plantings.

Yellow cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)
Usually grown as an annual, in full sun this flower will reach 1-3 feet tall and wide. A friend to butterflies, blooms must be harvested every few days for dye. Flowers can be dried or frozen for later use. If allowed to form seed, this plant will self-sow. Flowers of orange and yellow may be thrown in the same pot, but be aware, C. bipinnatus (the pink and white garden cosmos) will not produce pigments for dye.

The annual Cosmos sulphureus makes a strong, dense addition to the back of a border.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Once gardeners realized goldenrod was not the allergy inducer it was once believed to be, this perennial became a yellow favorite of late summer gardens. Height and width of plants vary by cultivar, but all work well for dye. It can be harvested in early spring, trimming the leafy parts of the plant or cutting off wide, branching stems. It can also be used in full bloom with flowering stems. Either way, Solidago produces the best color when used fresh – light yellows ranging to deep browns.

Solidago ‘Fireworks’ brightens this bed.

Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus hybrids)
This herbaceous perennial can grow 3-6 feet tall and wide with white, pink, or red flowers up to 10 inches across. You may know it as swamp mallow or Confederate rose, but no matter the name, it is the flowers – the darker the better – that are used for dye. One would conclude a rosy red would result from the blossoms, but a wide range of taupe and brown hues with hints of lilac should be expected. The flowers should be gathered every day or two, calyx removed, and stored in a zippered plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. When boiled, the liquid is thicker than other dye plant solutions and as with most, the longer the fibers soak in it, the deeper/darker the result will be.

Hibiscus is a wonderful color addition for the summer garden as well as an experimental dyebath.

Marigold (Tagetes erecta, T. patula)
Marigolds brighten flower and vegetable gardens alike and most varieties and species give good results when used for dye. Any part of the top of the plant can be used dried, frozen, or fresh. The solution will be a very deep color after simmering only 30 minutes. (Consider the strong fragrance of the foliage and make a plan to cook this outside.) Color tones will vary depending on the darkness of the bloom – yellow-flowering marigold will produce lighter dyes; orange and red flowers will produce shades of rust and brown. 

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’)
‘Goldsturm’ is probably the most common rudbeckia cultivar because of its reliability and good manners. Growing 2-3 feet tall, if kept from spreading, it makes a great garden addition. All Rudbeckia species are good for dying, but the foliage produces different colors than the flowers. Plant parts may be dried or frozen for later use, but the pigment is slow to release in the kettle; prolonged boiling or soaking will probably be necessary. Expect golden hues from the leaves and stems and varying shades of brown when the flowers are used.

‘Goldsturm’ black-eyed Susan is a mass of blooms in summer. Deadhead the flowers to lengthen the bloom time.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
Although not traditionally considered a great dye plant, annual sunflowers are often included in gardens and the fresh flower heads make a wonderful lime-green, golden, or avocado-colored dyebath. Multi-branched sunflower varieties with varying flower colors may produce different results (as would the flower with mature seed in the head.) There is one variety ‘Hopi Black Dye’ that is grown specifically for the seeds as a dye source.

Yarrow (Achillea spp.)
Regardless of the color, yarrow flowers and ferny foliage produce one of the palest yellow dyes. Easy to grow in full sun, the tops of the plant can be harvested anytime of the year and boiled to obtain a dyebath.

Plant yarrow in a rock garden, herb bed, or perennial planting.

These are but a few of the plants used to produce dye to color paper, leather, wool, or tea towels. Bark, walnut husks, fresh shoots of willow trees, Dahlia, Zinnia, hollyhocks (Alcea spp.), and so many more flowers and foliage can be used to create yellow, orange, green, and brown to your heart’s desire. Blue hues are available from only a few plant sources. Indigofera suffruticosa and Polygonum tinctorium are two that grow easily in the southern U.S. (please check to make sure they are not on your state’s invasive species list.) Most red tones come from insects or the root of Rubia tinctorum, known as dyer’s madder, a bedstraw relative that needs to grow three years before harvesting the roots.

How It’s Done

If only it were as easy as dipping a white T-shirt into a pot of extracted plant color and having a new item in your wardrobe. Unfortunately, it takes a little more effort than that. 

Fibers, be they cellulose (from plants such as cotton or flax) or protein (from animal hair or hide), are treated with a metallic wash called a mordant to help the material accept and retain the color. Baths of aluminum (alum), copper, tin, or chrome are used to pretreat the item to be dyed before it is boiled or soaked in the color. In addition, most botanical color extracts are pH sensitive, so an addition of vinegar or baking soda to the dyebath will probably alter the color results.

Some mordants are, surprisingly, sold in grocery stores and garden centers. Ammonium aluminum sulfate is a type of alum commonly used to make pickles. Iron sulfate or coppers are sold at garden centers to condition and amend deficient soil. Copper sulfate is sold in garden centers as a fungicide. Most iron and copper mordants tend to darken the results of the dye and overapplication can make fibers brittle. (Recipes usually call for a tablespoon or less.) Those new to dyeing can rest assured that solutions from these agricultural mordants can safely be poured on the garden soil. Mordants such as chrome and tin should be disposed of at a community hazardous waste collection point. A Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan (Interweave Press) is a wonderful resource for tips and advice.

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