Growing Plants for Dye

Coreopsis flower photo by Thomas Wright, UF/IFAS

Coreopsis flowers can be used to make a yellow dye.
(UF/IFAS file photo).

Having attractive plants in your yard is great, but having nice-looking plants that multi-task is particularly wonderful. Fruits and vegetables, for example, have found a place in the landscape beds of many gardeners, providing both color and food. Some gardeners are even going a step further—a number of these edibles can also be used as natural dyes.

Plants have a long history of being used for their staining, dyeing, and coloring properties. While a rainbow of colors can be produced, most natural dyes produce soft shades that draw from the natural world.

Natural dyes have lost out in mass production because they are impossible to standardize. Factors like soil type, weather conditions, and miscellaneous "contaminants" such as lichens, insects, or galls that get caught up in the harvest can alter the color of the dye. However, these same factors will add to the unique hues you can create when making your own dye.

Keep this multi-tasking benefit in mind as you plan your garden. Since most of these plants produce both dye and edibles, remember to plant enough to eat and to harvest for color. Alternately, if by accident you find yourself with excess fruits and vegetables, consider turning some of that unwanted produce into a unique dye.

Dye Colors

Choosing plants to create warm dye colors—reds, oranges, and yellows—is a bit easier than finding plants for cool colors like blues and purples, simply because cool tones are rarer in nature. It's probably not surprising that a fair number of plants can be used to create dyes in shades of green.

Warm Tones

Red, pink, and rose-colored dyes can be achieved using red onion skins and beets; berries from ficus, pokeweed, and elderberry; hibiscus flowers; or the entirety of coreopsis and goldenrod plants. Prickly pear fruits can be used to make a lovely peach-colored dye. A number of edible plants can be used to make orange dyes including yellow onion skins, turmeric, and cumin. Berries of the rouge plant (Rivina humilis) can also be used to make a pale orange dye. While the whole coreopsis plant can be used to make a red dye, simply using the flowers will give you a yellow dye. Yellows can also be achieved using orange and lemon peels, wax myrtle leaves, St. John's wort leaves and flowers, and red maple leaves.

Spanish moss can also be used to make a tan-colored dye. So while you're unlikely to grow it intentionally, finding some to use for dye-making is generally easy to do in Florida.

Cool Tones

Close up shot of a blackberry

Blackberries can be used to make a blue-purple dye. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

Purple dye can be made using the seeds of golden canna or beach sunflower. Red cabbage, blueberries, and blackberries can be used to make blue- to purple-colored dyes (as a warning, dyes made from berries will fade the most over time). Many plants can be used to make green dyes, particularly edibles like spinach, kale, parsley, and the tops of carrots. Beach sunflower blossoms can also be used to create a pale green dye. While not often grown intentionally, the perennial weed betony can be used to create a lovely chartreuse dye.

Mordants

Many natural dyes need additional substances, called mordants, to help plant color attach to textile fibers and form a durable bond. The resulting color is not only dependent on the plant that's used, but also on the specific mordant used. Mordants also increase color brightness. There are some natural dye materials that produce strong and resilient colors without the addition of mordants. If you're mixing your dye with mordants, be aware that some are poisonous and should be labeled correctly and stored separately from food items. Another note of caution: when home dyeing be aware of toxic plant materials; in fact, it's generally best to avoid them.

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