Natural dyes from native plants

Blue elderberr
Blue elderberry is among the many native plants that have been used to make traditional dyes. Photo: Jim Freed/WSU Extension

This article originally appeared in Forest Stewardship Notes, a joint publication for small forest landowners by DNR and Washington State University Extension.

Native plants — many from the forest — have provided colors for paintings, craft decorations, foods and body art for thousands of years. Natural dye materials can be gathered at most times of the year: young leaves and flowers in the spring, mature leaves and flowers in the summer, fruit in autumn, and bark and roots in the winter. Most plants are best used fresh, but many are just as good after drying or dehydration.

Flowers – Many flowers produce excellent dyes. It will take about twice the weight of fresh flowers to the weight of fabric to obtain the desired color. The brightest dyes are usually produced from freshly collected material, although petals from faded or even nearly dead plants can produce good results.

Fruit – Berries with thin skins, such as raspberries, blackberries and elderberries, need only brief cooking and crushing to extract the juice. Harder fruit must  be soaked for 24 hours before cooking and crushed as much as possible before soaking. Nuts with high tannins, such as oak, will last for up to two years and will give perfect results when crushed and boiled.

Leaves, bark and roots are also good choices      

Leaves – Leaves from deciduous plants like alder may produce variable results according to their age. Tough leathery leaves such as holly, ivy, or chinquapin oak should be  torn into pieces and soaked for a few days before use.

Bark – Barks give a wide range of colors in the red-brown-yellow range. Small twigs can be peeled and the soft bark soaked and boiled. Bark from oaks produces a range of buffs and browns, alder gives browns and yellow, and birch provides soft pinks and browns. Mature bark needs to be chopped up and soaked for several days before use.

Roots – Roots can be gathered when there is no risk of damaging the plant. Trees that have been toppled during a wind or snow event provide a great resource for small roots used to provide dye materials. Roots should be chopped, soaked for several days.

Working with children to gather, extract and use dyes is a good way to get them interested in all the different values of natural resource lands. Greeting cards made with natural fibers dyed with native plant materials are great gifts and simple to make. A University of Michigan-Dearborn database lists many of the plants in North America that Native Americans have used to produce dyes and other products.

Adapted from a blog by Jim Freed, Washington State University (WSU) Extension Forest Products Specialist, and published in the Summer edition of Forest Stewardship Notes.

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