A Garden of Dye Plants provides both beautiful plants and a direct link with thousands of years of history. From the very beginning, people have sought color for clothing, for household textiles, for food and drink, for art materials, and for cosmetics. The story of natural dye plants is very much a part of world history. Synthetic dyes were discovered in 1859 but did not replace natural dyes until well into the twentieth century.

Madder (Rubia tinctoria) is probably the single most important natural dye herb. It was used by the ancient Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans and virtually everyone until the early twentieth century. Henry II of England chose red as the color for the livery of his servants, which was to be “dyed red with madder,” which in turn led to the color of the coats of the British Army. The brightest and most lasting dye created from Madder was Turkey red, an expensive scarlet, used for embroidery thread. In fact, Turkey red was probably the most sought-after color of the 19th century. In 1849, the Merrimac and Hamilton Mills in Lowell produced more than a quarter million yards of cotton fabrics dyed or printed in Madder colors, which was advertised as of such quality that it “rivalled the foreign.” Madder produces five colors: madder red, madder purple, madder orange, madder yellow and madder brown. Today little is raised commercially except to supply an artists’ pigment of superior quality.

Dye is produced from various plants in different ways. Sometimes the root is used, sometimes the plant itself. The material to be dyed determines whether the dye process requires a “mordant” or fixative, which is a metallic compound that penetrates the fibers to be dyed and creates a new compound with the dye itself, creating colorfastness. To illustrate, the process by which madder produces dye is as follows: the roots of plants that are 3 years old are dug and washed, then chopped into small pieces. Then they must be rinsed under cold water to flush out yellow and tan pigments. Next they are put into a blender, covered with water and ground fine. The resulting mush is added to water and baking soda and simmered at 160 degrees for an hour. After straining, the material to be dyed is added, premordanted with alum, tin, or chrome, and simmered again at 160 degrees for an hour. The material is then cooled, washed, rinsed and dried. Deeper color may require many dippings.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) also has a fascinating history. Woad is an Anglo-Saxon word and was the universal dye of the Middle Ages. The earliest reference to it described its use by the wild Picts (Pict meaning painted) of Britain, who stained their faces and bodies a hidious blue with the fermented juice of woad to aid their defense against the invading armies of Julius Caesar. It and the ferocity of the painted warriors produced terror in the soldiers. Until indigo was introduced into Europe, woad was the only blue dye used and mixed with a combination of other dyes, it produced reds, violets, and purples. Mixed with yellow it produced a fine green. Woad black, obtained from the addition of madder, produced a black superior to all other blacks and one used until well into the 1800’s. In England, the importance of woad to the dye-and-cloth trade led to its protection by Parliament which declared in 1550 that “not any person shall dye any wool to be converted into cloth unless the same wool be perfectly woaded.”

Woad is a biennial. In its first year it exists as a rosette of heavy blue—green leaves with white veining. In May of its second year, it sends up a sturdy three-foot stalk and bursts into umbels of bright yellow flowers. It can be very handsome in a garden border. If cut back after blooming, it will flower again in July. The black seed heads are attractive when dried. The leaves of the woad plant are fermented to produce dye with the darker blues coming from older leaves. Mature leaves produce the blue-black color.

Weld (Reseda lutea) is also a biennial with an interesting transformation from a large rosette in its first year to a tall spiked plant in its second. After blooming the foliage of the weld plant may turn the same pale yellow as its flowers had been. Weld is the oldest known plant source of yellow dye. The Romans restricted its use to the tinting of bridal clothes and to coloring garments for the six vestal virgins. In early England and Europe weld was apparently more plentiful as a native plant and used more widely. Weld produces crystals of yellow pigment which when extracted make the purest and most fast yellow color of any plant known.

Dyer’s Greenwood (Genista tinctoria) is a small shrub covered with yellow pea-like flowers in summer, which were used for a yellow dye. It was the yellow mixed with woad to produce Lincoln green, the color worn by Robin Hood, and Kendal green, an important woolen dye.
Alkanet (nchusa officinalis) has many ancient uses, mostly as a food dye. The bright red root pigment was used by the Egyptians and Greeks to color oil, wine, and butter red. Colonial mericans used it to color medicinal syrups and to turn cheese orange. There was also a cosmetic use as a rouge and lip salve: John Gerard in his 1597 Herball wrote that “the Gentlewomen of France do paint their faces with these Roots.” Anchusa tinctoria was used to stain leather and wood a reddist—brown. Both varieties were used as a cheap red dye for fabrics. Alkanet is a lovely plant with pink turning to blue flowers, blooming from mid—summer to frost.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) is a handsome perennial with spikes of yellow flowers three feet high. Popularly called “church steeples” by the people of old England, it was used as a spring tonic, an ingredient of herb beer, and a yellow dye.

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) has an interesting history. The genus name “Carthainus” is from the Arabic “Quartom” which means “to paint.” For centuries the Chinese used the red florets to dye silks various shades of pink and red. The Egyptians also used Carthamus for a scarlet dye on linen cloth. Indeed, textiles found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (1358 B.C.) had been dyed with the plant. It is also used as a coloring for liguers and confections, and may be mixed with talcum powder to make a dry rouge.

Our Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) is native to Europe and was probably brought to America by early settlers for its service as cheese rennet. It was also used as a light red or yellow dye. Bloodroot was the red dye for Native Americans.

Indigo gradually replaced Woad as the best source for blue dye. The native American plant, Baptisia tinctoria, was cultivated in colonial times for a pale blue dye but was a poor substitute for Indigo. However, both it and Baptisia australis are lovely hardy perennials for the garden, approaching four feet in height and width, with yellow (B.tinctoria) or blue (B.australis) pea-like flowers all summer.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a hardy perennial which will grow anywhere and has been used for a great many purposes, medicinal and culinary. It also has the desirable feature of repelling ants and flies so a bunch of tansy was tied near every household opening. (Try tansy leaves instead of lettuce under potato salad at your next summer cookout!) The dye produced by tansy ranges from grayish—green made from the young leaves, to dark green later. Different mordants also produce different greens. The flowers provide a yellow dye.

Elaine Dow, The New England Unit

A Short History of Dye Plants
A Short History of Dye Plants was researched and written by Elaine Dow, a member of The New England Unit of The Herb Society of America.
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