Category: Dye plants

Start a dye garden

Set up a dye garden: Dye plants for gardens and containers

Ich gärtnere in einem Berliner Schrebergarten, mit begrenztem Platz, ohne Gewächshaus, und außer Färberpflanzen möchte ich auch Gemüse und Obst ernten. Diese Färberpflanzen hier sind meine “Grundausstattung”, und werden jedes Jahr wieder angebaut, auch wenn es eng ist… Ich färbe gerne mit ihnen, sie funktionieren in meinem Garten und bieten auch den Insekten was, denn der Garten ist ja nicht nur für mich.
When I first started, it was helpful for me to grow quite a few different plants to get to know them - but only a small number of each.
If you have even less space, only garden in pots and containers, or want to focus on just a few plants, this article will help you decide.

Die meisten Pflanzen ziehe ich in der Wohnung vor, anfangs nur auf den Fensterbrettern. Inzwischen habe ich noch ein Regal mit Pflanzenleuchten, weil der Platz sonst nicht für all das Gemüse und Färbepflanzen reicht. Noch ausführlicher über’s Vorziehen und die Ansprüche der Färberpflanzen habe ich im E-Book Farbe ernten geschrieben.

Plants to dye yellow

Weld (Reseda luteola)

Usually Weld is a biannual , forming only a basal leaf rosette in the first year - a rather unimpressive dye plant. But while many plants dye yellow, weld historically was considered special among these, in europe.
The dye it contains, luteolin, is more lightfast than many other yellow shades. The yellow is intense, sometimes almost neon-bright, with a tendency towards a green tinge. If you want to mitigate this, mix weld with other dye plants.
In the second year, the plant then forms a stem with many small flowers - traditionally it is harvested around that time. So you should reserve a spot for weld for two years.

Dyer's s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria)

Dyer's chamomile is (supposedly) perennial, but I I find often the plants only bloom for one or two years. I had dyer's chamomile in the garden that kept coming back for four years - in between I cut it back hard when it wasn't looking good. But I also sow a few new seedlings every year, as not all of the plants are so long-lived.

I regularly pick the flower heads to harvest, and pruning back once a year can rejuvenate the plant. Blooms long into winter.
Their shade of yellow is softer and warmer than that of the weld.

Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Perhaps you already have this plant in your garden, or are surprised that I'm naming it here? Many gardener's here try to get rid of it, it is considered an invasive weed... Others value it as an important pollinator friendly plant, for infusions and as a medicinal plant. As if that wasn't enough, it's also a dye plant.
The goldenrod propagates not only through seeds, but also underground via rhizome, and is quite good at it. I like to leave them in the garden wherever there is space. In other places I dig them out. I enjoy watching the plants, visited by bumblebees, bees and other insects, enjoy the yellow flowers and some go into the dye pot.

Und wenn du vielleicht von Wau oder Färberkamille nur wenig hast, kannst du deinen Färbetopf mit Goldrute auffüllen! Möchtest du Blüten trocknen zum Färben im Winter, solltest du sie ernten, bevor sie richtig aufgeblüht sind. Sonst reifen sie noch aus und statt gelber Blüten hast du dann viele Samen mit dem fluffigen ‘Pappus’.

study of various fabrics dyed with goldenrod

Dye plants for apricot | orange | rust

Tickseed/Dyer's coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)

Dyer's tickseed is a filigree annual summer flowerand can grow quite tall. You could add them to a mixed flower planting, placed behind smaller plants. Or you fill a bed with only this plant, which I really love, too. I mostly interplant them in the vegetable garden wherever I can make space.
During summer I harvest flower heads regularly. I try to only pick about half of them at any time, and then the other half the next time I get there, so there are plenty of flowers still for pollinators.

Dyes apricot, the higher the weight of fiber ratio is, it yields a rusty orange or even almost reddish brown.

Orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)

The Orange cosmos wird nicht so hoch wie das Schmuckkörbchen (Cosmos bipinnatus), das du vielleicht aus Gärten kannst. Du könntest die beiden kombinieren, und die Schwefelkosmee vor die höheren Sorten pflanzen. Ich reserviere zwischen Gemüsebeeten gern einfach einen Streifen für die Schwefelkosmee, als kleinen Farbfleck. Sie ist einjährig, also belegt das Beet nur eine Saison lang.

Here, too, you can regularly harvest flowerheads, which are a bit larger but not as numerous as those of the tickseed. If you only use a few flowers for dyeing, you get delicate peach tones, similar to tickseed. If you use more of the flowers, the difference becomes apparent: you get intense, bright orange tones.

Dyer's Marigold (Tagetes erecta)

The Marigold wird besonders groß (bis etwa 80cm) und buschig – sie braucht im Färbergarten auf jeden Fall mehr Platz, als die niedrigen Tagetesvarianten, die man häufig aus Blumenbeeten an öffentlichen Plätzen kennt.
When conditions are good, these marigolds will become really magnificent and produce many of their large flowers. Tagetes in general are beneficial for soil health, but with this variety keep in mind they their space if interplanting with other plants. Marigolds then bloom continuously until the first frost.

Dyes various shades of yellow and orange. With particularly intense yellow flowers, I have also unexpectedly dyed a bright yellow-green.

Dyeing red with plants

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder contains dye in the roots, especially the red dye alizarin. If you want to plant it, note that it takes up its space in the dyer's garden longer than other plants. Madder is perennial, and in order for the roots to be thick and mature, harvesting is recommended after two, preferably three years. Madder can grow in beds, but I like to plant it in big tubs and containers. This will make root harvesting easier when the time's come. Madder grows quite tall, or rather long - even with support, the stems don't climb that high for me, they tend to fall over. These parts of the plants can then root again, which you can encourage by covering them with soil once they are long enough and reach the ground. Leaves and stems have small scartchy barbs. I wouldn't plant madder too close to a path or your sitting area.

Madder is part of the family of Ruubiaceae, along with other plants you may already be familiar with. Including Cleavers, Lady's bedstraw and Sweet woodruff. Another member of the family, lesser known, is Dyer's woodruff.
Their roots also contain some of the coveted dyes. But the roots are finer, not as strong as those of madder.

Once you harvested roots, you can of course dye with fresh roots. Traditionally, the roots were left to dry and stored after harvesting. In the process, substances in the root change over time and the dyes become more red.

Plants to dye blue

Dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum oder Persicaria tinctoria)

Dyer's knotweed wird auch Japanischer oder Chinesischer Indigo genannt. Die Pflanze ist einjährig, und wächst gut in Beeten und Gefäßen. Hauptsache, die Bedingungen stimmen: Sonnig und nährstoffreicher Boden. Wenn etwas nicht passt, bekommen die Blätter eine Rotfärbung. Das kann zum Beispiel zu intensive Sonne nach dem ersten Auspflanzen sein, besonders wenn die Pflanzen nicht abgehärtet wurden – das sollte aber wieder vorübergehen. Auch starke Winde und ausgetrocknete Böden können das verursachen. Der Farbstoffgehalt in den Blättern ist höher, wenn es den Pflanzen gut geht, und es viel Sonnenschein gibt.

As with woad, indigo dye is obtained from the leaves. The pigment can be extracted or a vat made directly with fresh leaves. Dyer's knotweed is ideal for dyeing with the salt rub method, the most simple way to dye with indigo.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Woad gehört zu den Kreuzblütlern, das solltest du bei der Gartenplanung bedenken. Und er gehört zu den zweijährigen Pflanzen. Zur Indigogewinnung erntet man die Blätter im ersten Jahr – im zweiten Jahr enthalten sie weniger Farbstoff. Im zweiten Jahr blüht der Waid, und bildet eine hohe Blütenkerze mit vielen leuchtend gelben Blüten. Ein Insektenmagnet, der nach den Obstbäumen aber vor den meisten Sommerblumen blüht. Schon deshalb lasse ich alle Waidpflanzen zur Blüte kommen, und ernte die Samen. Die besten Samen kommen wieder zur Aussaat, die anderen nehme ich zum Färben – die sind für Bundle Dye schön. Wenn du nicht möchtest, dass sich Waid wild versamt, ernte alle Samenstände, oder schneide gleich die verblühten Stängel zurück.

Woad is resilient to cool temperatures. When I aI m running out of space indoors, I prefer not to start woad indoors, but sow in beds or in containers in the garden.
In my growing conditions, I find woad to be more hardy than Dyer's knotweed. It also thrives largely left to its own, as long as it's placed in nutrient-rich soil and I make sure it is not overgrown by taller plants. In summer hot spells I have to water it less often than most plants. Which makes sense, woad has been cultivated in Europe for a very long time and suits our climatic conditions well. (…until now? I wonder as I type.)

Plants to dye violet | grey | teal

These plants contain anthocyanins, which dye a range of colours depending on fiber type and dye ratio. They are also sensitive to pH changes and are among the more fugitive colors.

Sunflower Hopi Black Dye (Helianthus annuus)

This variant of Sonnenblume wird sehr hoch, und wird im Laufe des Sommers am besten abgestützt, damit sie bei Wind nicht umknickt. Sie ist also nicht gut für kleine Pflanzgefäße geeignet.
It usually has one large main flower and many smaller secondary flowers. It is a traditional dye plant of Hopi people and the dark seed (hulls) are harvested for dyeing. I like to use the seeds for bundle dye. I don't harvest all the flower heads, I also leave some in the garden for the birds to feed on. The only chaffinch I ever saw in our alotment was nibbling at the sunflower buffet.

Schwarze Stockrose (Alcea rosea ‘nigra”)

Hollyhock (also called mallow) is biennial or perennial. In the first year they only form a rosette of leaves, in the second year they grow up to 2m high flower stalks. So you can only start harvesting flowers in the second year. I pluck off the blossoms and dry them after they have closed again. So the flowers can still set seed. If all flowers are cut back before seeds are ripe, hollyhock may sprout again for another year.

Much like sunflowesr, I wouldn't recommend growing hollyhock in containers, it has a long taproot and does better when given decent space to root.
Do not space hollyhocks very close together. They are susceptible to mallow rust, a fungal disease. If they are not spaced airy and can dry off well, they are particularly at risk.

Dunkle Blueten von schwarzer Stockrose
Black hollyhock

There are other flowers that dye similar: For example deep dark varieties of dahlia and scabiosa or Black or chocolate cosmos. If you want to use those for dyeing, look out for varieties with the darkest, almost black flowers.

Dye plants for containers and planters

Are you looking for dye plants that are suited for a balcony garden? The first choices that come to mind are Tickseed and Orange Cosmos. In large pots (from about 18 liters) I have also grown beautiful tall Dyer's marigold.
Dyer's marigold and Tickseed grow quite tall. If that doesn't go well with your location: There are more compact, short varieties of Tickseed - and also different types of marigolds. Dyer's marigolds are particularly good for the dye pot because they have such large double flowers, but they also grow quite tall. Smaller varieties with smaller buds aren't as productive, but still yield dye, and great for bundle dye. I especially like Tagetes tenuifolia – they smell wonderful, maybe you like them in tea too. And the small filigree blossoms are beautiful in bundle dyeing.

Of course, you can also plant Dyer’s chamomile, weld and woad, in sufficiently large pots or raised beds. The last two have taproots, so they need more space underground than a small pot or balcony flower box would provide. And madder is also good for planting in containers. Do not choose a container that is too small (I would choose from 20L, preferably bigger), then madder plants should get through the winter alright in it. These also don't dry out so quickly in summer.

In general: Plants in pots need a little more attention. They dry out faster and will probably need more fertilizing. The smaller the container/amount of soil, the more attention is required.

And when is a good time to sow?

Information about a good time to sow usually can be found on seed packages, and here are my sowing recommendations. But of course this is depending on where you are gardening! With my garden in Berlin I can stick to these general recommendations. But there are also areas in Germany where it is milder and where sowing and planting is possible earlier. Elsewhere, for example at high altitudes, both are recommended later.

How to not sow too early: count back from the last frost date

If you are new to growing plants from seeds and there's noone local with gardening experience you can ask: The most important date I look out for is when the last frost (or nights below six degrees C, for sensitive plants) can be expected. If you don't have a greenhouse or lots of cool temperature indoor space with grow lights, then this date is important. You can also look at the number of hours of daylight, but as an amateur gardener, the temperature has been a helpful guideline for me so far.

For me, that's usually mid-May (in 2021 it was a little later, which meant it was getting very crowded in may growing area). Plants that grow rather slowly like weld I sow up to eight weeks before this date, most others closer to six to four weeks.
Sunflowers grow quickly, and I sow them at most two to three weeks before expected planting-out-date. If they have to stay indoors for too long, they lack light and the plants cannot grow strong and robust.

So, if you don't have a (heated) greenhouse or similar, or grow in a very mild climate: Better not sow too early, no matter if you sow directly outside or prefer starting seeds indoors like me.
For me it's sufficient to seed dye plants in April, and sunflowers in early May.

Do you have any recommendations for the dye garden, or a question? A favorite plant? Do you prefer plants like me or do you sow directly outside?

Seeds for the dye garden

  • Set Saatgut Faerberpflanzen
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  • Farbe Ernten. Färberpflanzen für Garten und Balkon E-Book
    Farbe Ernten. Färberpflanzen für Garten und Balkon E-Book
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Kitchen dyes: Dyeing with pomegranate

Stoffe faerben mit Granatapfel

Pomegranate as a dye? There are quite a few fugitive plants found in our kitchens. That are so inviting especially for first dye experiments, like red cabbage or beet root – yet not colourfast. But pomegranate peels are a trustworthy and traditional source of dye.

Ich färbe nur ungern mit Essbarem – aber das Schöne ist ja, die Schale vom Granatapfel wird natürlich nicht gegessen, sondern landet auf dem Kompost. Oder im Färbetopf! Das ist also auch unter dem ‘Zero Waste’-Aspekt eine schöne Färberpflanze.

Pomegranate trees (Punica granatumare not native where I live. Their home is West/Central Asia but they have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for a very long time. Today they are grown pretty much around the globe wherever climate allows for it. The trees can stand light frost. In Germany they need some protection to overwinter, unless your garden is in an especially mild growing location.

Pomegranate peels as dye plants have a long history in the Mediterranean and West Asia, and can yield pale beige, bright or golden yellow, ocher and greys to blacks. There are some very old instructions for dyeing with pomegranate peels, dating to the neo-Babylonian period (626 to 539 BC), more on that can be found in Dominique Cardon’s Natural Dyes.

Bark and roots were also used for dyeing. In addition, they were also used medicinally. Humans and pomegranate trees have a long and multifaceted history.

Möchtest du mehr über Pigmente aus Pflanzenfarben? Und hier findest du den Workshop zum Drucken mit Pflanzenfarben.

Zero waste: Compost colours, even in winter

Because I was curious about dyeing with the peels, I once asked at a juice stall at the weekly market if I could have some pomegranate peels. And after some explanations I was allowed to get some in my bag. You will most likely find a vendor offering orange and pomegranate juice, too! Just kindly ask them for the peels. It is also one of the few dye plants that can be found here in winter, although not in the wild.

Drying pomegranate peels for dyeing

Recipes usually refer to dried pomegranate peels. To thatend I scrape the skins thoroughly with a spoon to remove flesh and seeds, and then dry them with as little pulp as possible. So if you eat one pomegranate from time to time and only have a few peels and not a whole bag like I do, that's no problem either. Simply dry your peels one at a time and keep collecting until you have enough. Dried dye plants are easy to store. Best protected from sunlight, but airy so nothing gets damp and moldy. I use brown paper bags and cardboard boxes to store them.

Tannin rich dye plant

Pomegranate peels are a special dye plant because they contain a high proportion of tannins. In many plants that dye yellow, flavonoids are responsible for this, but not here.
Tannins have a dual function in dyeing. Not only as a dye, but often they are also used in the pre-mordanting process. They can deepen colors and make them more colourfast.
And in pomegranate peels they are the reason why you can also use it to dye unmordanted fibers and still get fast colours: a rather delicate yellow or beige-yellow. With aluminum mordants it turns a stronger golden yellow and with iron the tannins react to shades of gray to black.

Dyeing with pomegranate peels

Most recipes I saw recommend equal weight of fiber and dyestuff.
Ich habe auch meist mit getrockneter Schale gefärbt, auch mal mit einem höheren %-Verhältnis – die Farben wurden nicht viel intensiver, eher etwas schmutziger, fand ich. Wenn die Schalen zwar trocken, aber noch recht “neu” waren, habe ich etwas reinere Gelbtöne bekommen. Bei Schalen, die schon einige Jahre getrocknet waren, fand ich die Töne weniger klar und leuchtend, etwas mehr Richtung Ocker. Falls dir das auch aufgefallen ist, oder du das gar nicht bestätigen kannst, schreib mir gern einen Kommentar dazu. Es interessiert mich sehr, ob andere auch diese Beobachtung gemacht haben!

For comparison I also dyed with fresh peels that had only dried overnight. The colors were more delicate, a beautiful clear yellow. (When using fresh plants for dyeing, remember to use a higher WOF % than with dry plants. They contain a lot of water, which makes them heavier.)

For dyeing, break or crush the dry peel into smaller pieces. I like to soak them overnight before gently heating them the next day and then dyeing as usual.
The author Eberhard Prinz (recommended herealso mentions that flowers and peels of unripe fruit dye red tones. I could not test that so far, but maybe you have that opportunity.

I was also interested whether a cold extraction would shift colours. To test this I cut up fresh peels and soaked them in water for a few days. This dye bath looked indeed redder than the hot extraction. But from all the fibers I dyed, only the wool yarn looked different, a bit more reddish. Of course, the hot extraction is quicker and yields more dye in the process.

Reading further about pomegranates

Im Buch ‘Natural Dyes. Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science’ von Dominique Cardon habe ich jetzt nochmal zum Granatapfel nachgeschlagen. Darin sind dem Baum drei Seiten gewidmet. Wenn dich Geschichte von Färberpflanzen, Färbemethoden und das Chemische “hinter den Kulissen” vom Färben interessiert, ist das ein wirklich spannendes Buch. Ich lese es sehr langsam (es hat über 700 Seiten), und benutze es ansonsten als Nachschlagewerk. Das Original ist Französisch, und ins Englische wurde es zwar übersetzt, soweit ich weiß aber nicht ins Deutsche. Wenn du einen vergleichbaren Wälzer suchst, aber auf Deutsch, vielleicht ist dann Helmut Schweppe’s ‘Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe’ (see here) is what you're looking for.

Vor allem aber bin ich in der Bibliographie von Cardon’s Buch auf einen weiteren Titel gestoßen, der mich neugierig macht. Der Granatapfel hat eine reiche Kulturgeschichte, ist unter anderem Symbol für Fruchtbarkeit und das Leben, und nun steht ‘Der Granatapfel. Symbol des Lebens in der alten Welt’ von Friedrich Muthmann, 1982, auf meiner Leseliste.

Have you dyed with pomegranate yet? Or do you maybe have another pomegranate reading suggestion for me?


DIY: Make ink from plants

Tinte aus Pflanzen selbergemacht

Just like before easter I also got creative again this festive season: I wanted to make ink from plants that to draw christmas cards and gift tags. Preferably from plants that are easily available. A few days after thinking about this, an avocado appeared in our kitchen, and that's when I knew what to do.* Make ink with waste from avocado!

Of course I just had to do this while I was busy with christmas preparations. But maybe you too can use a little creative project to slow down!

For my inks I used the fresh seed and skin of one avocado. As with dyeing, you could use dried or frozen seeds instead. And you don't have to use booth seed and peel together. I just used both fresh shortly after the avocado was eaten. And you can definitely yield quite a bit of ink using just one avocado (or its waste to be precise).

*If you don’t like to buy avocados, or if you just don’t like to eat them, you can ask in a restaurant or café if they can save some seeds for you. Just make sure to pick them up quickly so they don't start to get moldy.

What you need to make ink from plants

  • skin and seed from one avocado
  • washing soda is nice to have but you can do without
  • a small pot (not necessarily a dedicated dye pot if you use just avocado waste)
  • a small sieve or similar
  • a jar with a lid for storage
  • paint brush or pen

Ink from avocados No. 1: Basic recipe

Ink No. 1 was gently heated over a few days and then heated to reduce the liquid. Top: Just the ink Bottom: Ink with some gum arabic

Für meinen ersten Versuch habe ich den Kern der Avocado in kleine Würfel geschnitten, und auch die Schale in kleinere Stücke gerissen. Zusammen habe ich sie dann im Topf mit wenig Wasser bedeckt, kurz erhitzt und dann ohne weitere Hitze ziehen lassen. Ich wollte nicht viel Energie dafür verbrauchen, und hatte auch Geduld. Deswegen habe ich in den nächsten zwei Tagen die Hitze oben auf dem Herd vom Backen im Ofen benutzt, um die Farbe der Tinte zu intensiveren. Wenn du deine Tinte stark erhitzt, weil es schneller gehen soll, achte auf den Wasserstand. Wenn viel Wasser verdunstet, gieße etwas nach. Aber nicht zuviel, damit deine Tinte nicht verwässert.

Once you're satisfied with your colour intensity, strain your ink with a fine sieve, or a cheesecloth.

You can now try drawing with your ink, or carefully heat it to reduce the liquid further. I did heat it briefly because the color wasn't as strong as I desired.

Schneller + dunkler, Tinte aus Avocadokernen Nr. 2: Mit Waschsoda

Ink No. 2 using washing soda. Even before heated this ink was quite strong.

For my second attempt, I used the same seed and peel again. Aside from water I also added a small amount of washing soda. Although I had used the plant matter before, the ink here got darker then before, and much faster.

Washing soda has an alkaline pH and you will only need a very small amount of it. You will see its effect quickly! The dye in avocado seeds and peel are among those that do well with an "alkaline extraction". The alkaline pH not only influences what the ink looks like, but also helps to quickly coax more dye from the plant matter.

So if you have washing soda at hand, I would highly recommend it!* I also like the stronger color very much, but above all it is faster. You might only need to heat this ink very briefly.

It amazes me how much dye is in the seed + skin of just one fruit! If you need more ink, just repeat the process. I let this ink soak for three days, during which time I only used the excess heat from baking bread for the pot to heat it.

Washing soda is sodium carbonate, and you can find it in drug stores next to detergents or washing powders. When you use it, follow the instructions on the packaging and avoid getting it in your eyes.

*Perhaps you have other alkaline additives in the house to subsstitue. You could also try baking powder or baking soda. (Not sure it works as well, I always use washing soda).

Thickening your plant ink

Ink thickened with gum arabic to make the stamp. The organic structure of the paper is emphasized.

Ink from avocado seeds will probably quickly thicken a little anyway if you reduce them on low heat.

But there are also various natural thickeners that have long been used for inks. They can also prevent solids in the ink from settling on the bottom quickly.
I used ground gum arabic for this. I wanted a slightly thicker ink to use with my stamps - I didn't have a good ink pad for it, just kitchen towel. If you want to make stamping ink, you should look for a suitable material for an ink pad first. That should definitely improve your results, I just was too impatient.

You could also experiment with other resins, starch, honey, gelatin ...

Storing botanical ink

The ink can be kept cool and tightly sealed in the refrigerator for days to weeks. That also depends on the plants used and on whether and which ingredients were added.

Some essential oils, like clove oil, also help prevent mold. You can put a drop or two of it in your jar with ink. Please dose sparingly and also observe the safety instructions on the packaging of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely concentrated and should therefore be used very carefully.

Dyes in compost: Other plants to make ink with

For further ink adventures with home ingredients, consider using yellow or red onion peels. Or pomegranate peels, black tea grounds and the green husks of walnuts again next autumn.

All of these plants are rather easily accessible at least here, and end up in the compost anyway. Before that happens, you can still use them to dye! Or, in our case, make ink.

I would collect a little more of the black tea that has already been used for the project, because unlike the other ingredients, it has already been infused once before.

You may notice that I don't like to use whole foods to dye, but rather their waste, even if it's just to make a little bit of ink.

Colourfastness of plant dyes

But the plants (or their waste) listed here are not only a good choice from a zero waste perspective. They all contain certain types of dyes that naturally have a fairly good fastness. Onion peel and walnut shell have special dyes that are able to combine with fibers even without stain (substantive dyes). And avocado skin/stones, pomegranate peel and black tea contain tannins. Plants can contain various types of tannins and these can make dyes more colourfast.
This ink sure doesn't last forever, but it won't fade in a very short time either.

Fugitive dyes – not all plants are dye plants

There are some plants in the kitchen that are quite colourful but don't have these characteristics that make a good dye. Things like spinach, beet root, red cabbage, various pink and blue berries contain fugitive types of dye. The are colourful when we look at them, but just don't contain proper dyes. Personally I'd rather eat these as dyeing with them feels too wasteful when the colours don't stand washing or sun light. But for a small project, perhaps with young children, they might still be worthwhile!

Plant inks and mordants

Ich wollte meine Tinte erstmal einfach und auch “kindgerecht” halten. Wenn du dich mit dem Färben schon auskennst, und Beizsalze hast, kannst du aber auch damit experimentieren. Die Kombination aus Beize und Farbstoff kann wie beim Färben auch bei der Tinte die Farbechtheit verbessern.

All of my avocado inks - second from left with iron, all of them mixed on the left.

I have also added some homemade iron solution to my avocado ink. As expected, the color becomes much darker immediately. But the iron avocado ink also tends more to settle on the bottom. If that bothers you, do without the iron or add some gum arabic.

Ink from walnut husks, the darker drawings had some iron added.

I liked drawing with the ink so much that I've already started the next one! This time with walnut husks that I always have in the studio for dyeing – switch for black walnuts if these are local to you.

I used to draw a lot and also used acrylic paints. Because I didn't like the materials, over time I just stopped painting and drawing. Instead, I worked with colour only through dying with plants. This simple DIY ink certainly doesn't have the durability of many purchased colors. But I love that I know all of its ingredients, and that it feels less "anonymous", like a more intimate type of material to be creative with. For me, this feels like coming full circle, and these were definitely not my last attempts at ink!

auf Pinterest merken

November dye plants: Dyeing with leaves

Seide, Baumwolle und Wolle gefaebrt mit Eicheln

Autumn has arrived, the summer plants have faded and the trees are shedding their leaves. All beings are preparing for winter. We withdraw and enjoy the harvest of the previous months.

While summer is abundant and the time to forage, winter is for being cosy indoors, crafting and sure, also dye pots. But are you wondering if you could still find dye plants now?

That certainly depends on the weather in your region, but I would say yes. (Even though I have already collected and dried some things for the cold season over the summer.)

On my walk today, in early November, I found walnut leaves. Treasures can still be discovered now, especially when trees are growing a protected location.
I remember last year in November I also collected some cones from alder trees and caramel-coloured leaves from beech trees. If I collect something this time of year, it will mainly be what I can find on the ground, rather than picking from trees.

Dyeing with walnut leaves

Last year I prepared two dye baths to compare: one with walnut leaves that I collected green earlier in the year and then dried, and some that had already turned bright yellow on the tree. I wondered which would yield more dye, or if there'd even be a difference.
My conclusion was that the discoloured autumn leaves still dyed intensely. So there is still dyestuff to be found late in the year!
While the microseason of fresh green walnut hulls is already passed, fortunately, walnut leaves can be found for a longer period.

Purple leaf plum

In my favourite park I often walk by a fabulous purple leaf plum. Here I always find plenty of leaves on the ground after windy days, and sometimes only take a handful of leaves with me. There is a tree like that in your neighbourhood, but you only can gather a small amount of leaves at a time? Then try drying the leaves and keep gathering until you have enough for a small dye pot. Or try bundle dyeing or eco printing - then a small amount of leaves will be sufficient!

Nach einem heftigeren Sturm vor einigen Tagen hat “meine” Blutpflaume leider gleich einen großen Ast verloren. So konnte ich ausnahmsweise meinen Sammelbeutel mit den Blättern ganz füllen. (Wenn du dich auch nach einem Sturm auf die Suche machen möchtest, sei vorsichtig. Äste könnten auch später noch runterfallen, wenn der Baum beschädigt wurde.)

fabrics dyed with purple leaf plum

Responsible foraging

Some trees, such as young beeches, keep their leaves on the tree in winter, while all other deciduous trees are bare. This probably protects the young trees throughout the winter. So we shouldn't defoliate them for our dye pot!
When gathering cones, acorns or other wild fruits and seeds, always pay attention to your surroundings. Is there only little of them in your area, or is it a year with only a small number of acorns, for example? In that case I'd leave the fruits for birds and other animals. They depend on these food sources, and in some years they can be sparse. Maybe they'll be plenty again the year after, and you can gather some for your dye pot with no harm.

Dyeing with discoloured autumn leaves

So I like to collect leaves from the ground, like I did with the blood plum... Either after a storm, when whole branches with still green leaves lie on the ground and I can simply pick them up from the paths on a walk. Or in autumn, when the trees shed their leaves.

I dyed beautiful tones not only with the discoloured autumn leaves of the walnut, but also with leaves of oak and beech that had turned reddish brown.
If you collect leaves from the ground, however, they should still be as fresh and intact as possible, not mushy or already very fragile. Leaves that have been lying on the ground for a long time or soaked in puddles for days, I would no longer spend time on to collect. If they are still in good condition (the leaf structure still feels like leaves on a tree) then experimenting with them is should be worthwhile.

Do you have any ideas on the topic? Or do you prefer not to collect anything in autumn?

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Interessieren dich außer den Pflanzen auch Färbepilze? Dann ist dieses Buch vielleicht genau das Richtige:

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Foraging for dye plants

Wiese mit Faerberpflanzen, bluehender Wilder Moehre

Summer is abundant with plants and flowers! An invitation to smell blooms on walks, to stare dreamily into the canopy while lying on a meadow – or to forage and dye.
If you are not familiar to gathering wild plants, I would like to introduce you to some things to consider. And at the end of this post you'll see three plants that you are sure to find if you're not located too far from here.

Plants take care of us - plants grow food, medicine, fibers that clothe and warm us, can be a roof over our heads when it rains, and they also contain dyes. Anything one could really ask for. When I remind myself of that, I feel so very grateful. And I want to return this generosity with consideration and respect.

With all the abundance, the forest, the meadow, are not a supermarket - not everything is always available in reliable quantities, and the shelves are not regularly replenished once there empty. In no way does this mean that we should only gaze at wild plants from afar, and look at nature as something we're no part of. Quite the contrary - I recommend to get familiar and immerse oneself.

Kennst du deinen Ort?

Location is important to consider for foagering. Where are you? You should not collect in protected areas. Different rules may apply in parks and gardens. Especially in places that are frequented by many people, such as inner-city parks, I collect leaves or acorns only when they have fallen to the ground (or after cutting). Are there only a few flowers in one place, or have the very first early blooms awakened? Then insects that collect pollen or nectar have priority.
Ein schöner Nebeneffekt vom “Ort kennenlernen” ist auch das Zuhause-Gefühl, das vielleicht mit der Zeit wächst, wenn du den Ort, die Pflanzen um dich herum eine Weile genauer beobachtest!

Get to know the plants

... that you want to pick. There are some poisonous plants, some of which are lookalikes of non-poisonous plants. There are plenty of dye plants, usually you can find good alternatives to poisonous plants.

If you are unsure, take a photo of the plant, then you can have it identified (or try your luck with an identification app). Photos of the location and of the leaves, the stalk, the flower and/or fruit are even better to identify a plant than a branch or a single picked leaf. And the plant can stay put. Field guide books can be helpful, and I'd recommend to join foraging tours or guided walks in your location. Or visit local botanical gardens or herb gardens. Especially smaller, community led ones, often showcase local flora.

But back to foraging: only take it with you if you recognize the plant. And only cut whatever you want to take it with you. Maybe you also know this rule from unenthusiastically mushroom picking as a child?

Of course, there are also rare, protected plants - maybe the probability is (unfortunately) not that great that you will find one. But that's another reason we shouldn't pick any unknown plants.

Are you out and about in the forest or on pristine meadows? From April and throughout summer you should stick to the trails while foraging, especially if you are not that familiar with the place and the wildlife. In order to not disturb ground-breeding birds and other animals. The good news is that there are often remarkably diverse plants along paths and trails anyway!

Some practical foraging guidelines

So, you are not in a protected area, the plants in front of you are not rare. How to proceed now?
Regulations on that topic may differ, but to my surprise the German legal take on foraging is quite clear and easy to understand. There is the so-calledHandstraußregelung“:
Which could be translated as bouquet regulation. "Everyone is allowed to carefully remove and acquire small quantities of wild flowers (...) and branches of wild plants from nature in places that are not subject to entry restrictions for personal use."

Other guidelines by herbalists are: don't take more than you need, and only when there is plenty.

Ernte so, dass es auch hinterher noch unberührt aussieht – für mich heißt das, ich ernte nur, wenn es viele Pflanzen gibt, und nehme von jeder einzelnen nur wenig (Blüten/Blätter…). Ich ernte zum Beispiel beim Beifuß die Spitzen, statt ganzer Pflanzen. Das regt sogar noch zum Wachstum an. Eine Freundin sagte vor kurzem „wenn ein Insekt auf der Blüte, ein Vogel auf einem Ast sitzt, haben sie Vorrang” und sie lässt ihnen die Pflanzen. Auf einer Veranstaltung von Wildwärts I heard "one part for you, one for the plant, and one for the fairies", which I think is especially good for children to remember!

Give and take

In Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (now also available in German ) there is an entire chapter Honorable Harvest, which I'd recommend to read (as the entire book). The author highlights respect and reciprocity, kinship, as guidelines fo foraging, integral to her indigenous heritage. That means, among other things: never take the first and never the last thing you see (i.e. nothing under certain circumstances). The plants take care of us, how can we respectfully reciprocate? Nature is generous, giving - and wherever you are given to, you only take what you can use, you share, you don't steal. A forest, meadow, garden is not the place for greed because there is no shortage. It is also important to ask the plants for permission before harvesting. Which might sound the most unfamiliar as it is so opposed to how many of us are taught to view plants. But something to ponder, and things to un- and relearn?

Personally, I don't harvest roots for dyeing in the wild. So perennials can sprout again. I leave flowers so that they can form seeds. And for stubborn stems, it's good to have scissors or a knife with you to avoid accidentally uprooting entire plants. I collect in cloth bags or paper bags that used to contain fruit or vegetables, to easily transport the plants. And if I remember to, I'll also have a plastic bag with me to collect plastic trash lying around. For a bit of practical reciprocity between me and my environment.

Three dye plants that you can probably find

At the moment I at least see these three plants all the time, on walks in the country side and in the city.

Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris

... is a traditional medicinal plant that used to be used in a variety of ways. It was also used as a herb in greasy heavy foods to aid digestion. Today mugwort is rarely used for both, so why not test it for dyeing?

Mugwort rather easy to recognize by its pinnate leaves with the typical silver-gray underside.

I harvested it for dyeing just before it bloomed. But if you're allergic to mugwort, as many are, you might just leave this plant alone. I harvested my mugwort bouquet from the side of the road, on the way to our little garden. Road sides are where you can see it very often, also on fallow land, at construction sites and in parks that are not constantly mowed.

I walked down the street for a bit, with scissors the cut the firm stems, and harvested only a few tips from each plant along the way. And I already spied a lot of goldenrod, which will also soon bloom throughout the city.

Stoffe und Wolle gefaerbt in hellen Grüntönen, mit einem getrockneten Beifuß-Blatt

Canadian goldenrod, Solidago canadensis

You can read even more on this plant in a previous post. It is definitely one of the dye plants that grow abundantly here, and like mugwort goldenrod is also a medicinal plant. You can use both leaves and flowers for dyeing. I especially like to harvest the flower stalks with the upper leaves before the buds open.

If you look closely, you can spot goldenrod everywhere even now, in mid-July. But once it blooms in late summer, it really can't be missed with its bright yellow flowers!

In some areas there is even a recommendation to remove this plant, as it can spread a lot with its rhizomes. It can crowd out other plants in certain biotopes, and so Canadian goldenrod, once introduced as an ornamental plant, often does not have the best reputation.

In my alotment, goldenrod it is allowed to grow. I harvest some of it, and remove plants where they take over. I then dye with them, or even make myself a tea. And otherwise I enjoy the flowers, and the droves of insects that they attract.

So, maybe there are actions in your area to remove goldenrod in specially protected landscapes? There you could harvest to your heart's content. But unless this is specified: the same rules apply to goldenrod as to other wild plants. But you can surely fill a dye pot with this plant, as abundant as it tends to grow.

Wild carrot, Daucus carota

I love the delicate flowers of Wild carrot, or Queen Anne's Lace, and so usually I do not pick any of them. Instead I use the green tops of my garden carrots – with both you can dye beautiful yellows.
But this year I have seen them in such large quantities that I could have picked a bouquet after all.
And Wild carrot is well suited even for beginner foragers because, unlike many other umbellifers, it can be clearly identified. There are some poisonous plants in this family, and many umbellifers (or apiaceae) do look quite similar. For example, cow parsely, as a non-poisonous dye plant, is very easy to mix up with the poisonous rough chervil or the very poisonous hemlock.

So, Wild carrot can be identified by the shape of its inflorescences, which look like fine, dense nests or an inverted lace cap (hence the name Queen Anne's lace, I assume). And you can look for the biggest of it's flower stalks - it should have a red (sometimes pink) or almost black flower in the middle of all the tiny white flowers. None of the poisonous umbellifers in our area have a similar "dot" in the centre of their flower clusters. For dyeing you can harvest both inflorescence and leaves.

In the past months I have had quite a few conversations on this topic that eventually inspired me to write on it, too. For example with Julia from Berliner Zauberkraut, who manufactures biological cleaners, and Tash from Avantgarden.Life, who also offers foraging workshops, focussing on herbal medicine.

And here's a post by Julia on ethical foraging, with contributions by makers from the Hexenküche Community.

Noch zum Abschluss: Alle Angaben nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen. Du solltest keine unbekannten Pflanzen sammeln oder damit färben. Ich übernehme keine Haftung für etwaige negative Folgen.

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Außer Färbepflanzen gibt es auch noch Pilze, mit denen man färben kann!

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Books about dyeing with plants: A few favourites

Buecher zum Faerben mit Pflanzen

Dye books for everyone: for makers, botanists and historians

In my workshops, which are now on hold due to the pandemic, there is more than just dye pots and learning through making. I always share lots of dye samples to look at, and books about dyeing with plants for inspiration.
The plant dyeing workshops are more than just learning and discovering together. They can be s space for community and exchange (something that we probably all miss in this time of zoom conferences); trying something without having to buy a lot of tools or materials beforehand; rummaging through various dye books, and perhaps discovering exactly the book that suits you. And at least the latter might work quite well here too!

Are you looking for a book that you can immerse yourself in, perhaps during lockdown? I've already got a number of books on plant dyes on my shelves, and still quite a few on my all-time wish-list ... But I've also been a real bookworm ever since I was able to read. Choosing my top five picks wasn't easy, but here are the ones I keep going back to most often Some of them are unfortunately only available in German, but all five are great to browse for a variety of reasons.

Jenny Dean: Wild Color. The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes

There are several editions of this book (mine is from 2010 Watson-Guptill Publications) - as far as I know, they are largely the same in content. (Please let me know if I'm wrong.)

This is my big recommendation to start with plant dyeing. The book begins with a historical introduction, and then offers a really comprehensive overview of different fibers, plants, methods - it remains easy to understand even for beginners. But even with ten years of dyeing experience, I still go to this book to look some things up, so I think it is a great choice.
I especially like the second part, “The Dye Plants”. On one or two pages there is background information on plants, cultivation, harvest and dyeing. Also a photo and a small color index on the edge. With all the variables in plant coloring, it is clear that the index is more of an inspiration than the exact tone you will be coloring yourself. But I still find it very helpful and inspiring when leafing through.

Not entirely unimportant, the author is British and dyes primarily with the plants that surround her - but the plant part is still relevant for German readers. With the exception of a few historical dye plants from Central America, almost all of them can also be found here. Unlike, for example, some books with a focus on North American flora, which are beautiful and interesting, but work with plants that simply do not grow here and need to be imported.

A recommended book for everyone who wants to start dyeing with plants. And for those who already have experience but would like to have a good standard work on the subject, too!

Eberhard Prinz: Färberpflanzen. Anleitung zum Färben, Verwendung in Kultur und Medizin

2009/2014 Schweizerbart

So far this book is only available in German. It is a great book for anyone who wants to forage for plants for dyeing themselves. It begins with chapters on the various natural dyes, dyeing and auxiliary substances. But the majority of the book is made up of the chapter “Dye Plants”. And that's also the part that I keep browsing.

There are plant portraits on 250 pages (in my 2014 edition). A full-page photo of each plant, a brief description of how it can be used for dyeing, often classifications on lightfastness, and information on other cultural or medical uses. If a plant is poisonous, it is always pointed out - a very important topic that's sometimes easy to forget in the excitement of discovering botanical dyes.

For each plant there is a short profile with the origin of the plant, the approximate colour range, more details on the most important dyes it contains and an overview of countries in which it was traditionally used.

A nice dye book for your (German) botany-obsessed friend!

Joy Boutrup, Catherine Ellis: The Art and Science of Natural Dyes. Principles, Experiments, and Results.

2018 Schiffer Publishing

I find this book outstanding. The authors bring together decades of experience and specialist knowledge from textile art, chemistry and textile technology and historical dyeing techniques.

I would rather recommend it to those who already have some experience with dyeing and want to deepen their understanding. Because in addition to practical instructions, this book explores the “mechanisms” in dyeing: why does something work this way, not another, and why only on some fibres? It also discusses printing with dyes, and indigo organic vats in detail.

All subjects are illustrated with photos and a few illustrations, but overall it is a very text-heavy coloring book.

Would you like to explore complex textile techniques with plant dyes, combine different colors and techniques, print, dye, discharge? Then you will find this book very helpful. Otherwise it is the ideal dyeing book for all chemistry enthusiasts (as myself).

Helmut Schweppe: Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe. Vorkommen, Verwendung, Nachweis

1993 Nikol Verlag

Another book that's only available in German: This book is only available to buy second-hand, but often at a reasonable price compared to other books that are out of print - and at 800 pages it is a real tome. I also wondered if that's why it should be on this list at all.

But I am sure it wasn't only me who – before the internet changes things so drastically – liked to browse lexicons, study illustrations and get to know previously unfamiliar words, places and people - and this manual is just perfect for that!

Today we can find almost anything online with a search engine, but leafing through a thick encyclopedia has a very special charm. The history of natural dyes from "very early" until the 19th century is dealt with with many tables of the plants used. It lists the different groups of dyes in nature, also with structural formulas (and that on about 400 pages). The last part deals in detail with the various ways in which these dyes can be detected. This is not so relevant for dyers in everyday life, but it is very exciting, because it allows historical fabrics or textile fragments uncovered by archaeologists to be examined and determined.

This book is the right one for those who like to browse and read across a long book, or who want to look up specific plants or regions from time to time.

Dominique Cardon, Iris Brémaud: Le Cahier de Couleurs d’Antoine Janot. Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours.

2020 CNRS Editions

Hopefully more will follow this little booklet about historical coloring with plants. It is a bilingual edition. In French and English there is an insight into the work and color palette of the French master dyer Antoine Janot from the first half of the 18th century.

With a lot of research, the authors have put pieces of the puzzle together and supplemented written recipes with preserved textile dye samples. When reproducing the colors, great importance was attached to being as close as possible to the original.
The book is intended more as an inspiration than a guide, some of the ingredients are no longer in use today. The wonderful colors and their names between pictorial, poetic and drastic (Dead leaf, Rotten olive green, Wine soup) are a pleasure. And the small glimpse into the precision with which the dyer Janot worked and figured out color recipes is really impressive.

This book is for you if you are interested in the history of this craft.

Keep reading and learning new perspectives

This list is of course not intended to be exhaustive or exhaustive. There are a few other books about dyeing with plants that I find very valuable, and some that I'm still very curious about! Maybe you have another book tip that you want to share? For the next year I have decided to look especially for books with a different perspective on the topic - for books on the topic by BIPoC authors - feel free to write to me if you have a recommendation!

PS:
Are you more interested in historical dyeing, but very practical? Jenny Dean’s "A Heritage of Color. Natural Dyes Past and Present" is also a booklet worth reading. Here the author approaches experimentally and practically, how (and which) natural dyes were uses on the British Isles historically.

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Dyeing yellow with goldenrod

Gelbe Stoffe gefaerbt mit Goldrute und Faerbetopf

Ab dem späten Sommer ist sie kaum zu übersehen, steht in voller Blüte: Dann ist der Zeitpunkt gekommen zum Gelb färben mit Goldrute. Wenn ich meinen Garten heute, am 1. September 2020, mit Bildern aus den Vorjahren vergleiche, begann ihre Blütezeit wohl dieses Jahr schon früher als in den Vorjahren. Aber es ist trotzdem noch Zeit zu Färben!

Goldenrod is one of the Dye plantsin my garden that just grow without any of my doing. This perennial reproduces through seeds, but also through rhizomes (i.e. underground) and has come to us from our neighboring garden. I harvest it abundantly, and wherever it threatens to take over beds, I dig it up.

Canadian goldenrod is the most common variant here now, Solidago canadensis. Sie gilt als sogenannter Neophyt, wurde also nach 1492 in Europa eingeführt. Der Name lässt es anklingen, sie ist in Nordamerika heimisch. “Neophyt”, eingeschleppte invasive Art, beides klingt erstmal nicht so gut. Aber die Kanadische Goldrute ist nicht in böser Absicht eingewandert, sondern als wurde von Menschen gezielt als Zierpflanze nach Europa gebracht und später auch als Bienenweide gepflanzt. In Deutschland wird sie tatsächlich nur in begrenzten Gebieten als ökologisch problematisch eingeordnet. Auch wenn sie sich schnell etabliert hat und auch weiter verbreitet, in den meisten Gebieten hat sie laut dem Bundesamt für Naturschutz “relativ wenig Auswirkungen auf schutzwürdige Elemente der Tier- und Pflanzenwelt”. Also Entwarnung. (Anders sieht es in Teilen Österreichs aus. Und in der Schweiz steht sie auf der Schwarzen Liste der Neophyten.) Und nicht nur das, die Goldrute ist durchaus wertvoll, in vieler Hinsicht. Sie blüht spät und wird von Insekten umschwirrt, gilt als Heilpflanze – und sie färbt!

Dyeing with goldenrod

I love to dry and store goldenrod to use in winter, as it is so abundant here. But I have heard from several dyers they don't get as clear yellow tones from dried goldenrod.

Edit: Vielleicht haben durchwachsene Farbergebnisse mit trockener Goldrute auch etwas mit der Wasserqualität zu tun. Mein Berliner Leitungswasser ist einerseits sehr hart, und hat dabei einen neutralen bis minimal alkalischen pH-Wert. Ist dein Wasser sehr weich/sauer, und du hast keinen Erfolg mit dieser Färbepflanze, probiere doch mal Kreide (Calciumcarbonat) zuzusetzen. Hier hat Catherine Ellis über den Zusammenhang von the effect of pH on yellow dyes, I highly suggest to take a look.

Einfach und direkt tolle, leuchtende Gelbtöne färbst du am besten mit frischer Goldrute. Im Vergleich mit anderen gelben Pflanzenfarbstoffen, wie der Färberkamille und dem Färberwau, nehme ich bei der Goldrute eher mehr Pflanzenmaterial für intensive Farbergebnisse. Aber weil sie ja oft eben gleich ziemlich geballt auftritt, ist das kein Problem, solange der Färbetopf groß genug ist!
You can use flowers, flowers and leaves, for dyeing. The former dyes somewhat cleaner tones. When heating the plant matter and when dyeing, I make sure that it doesn't get too hot. If the dye is boiling for a longer period of time, the colour sometimes tends to have a brownish tinge instead of a rich yellow.

As always when dyeing with plants: it's well worth taking your time with it. That begins with preparing fabric or woolen yarn. Pre-mordanting is particularly important on plant fibres such as cotton fabric (it is in general, but especially so with this dye plant). Goldenrod dye takes definitely better to wool and silk - which does not mean that it is not worth experimenting with cotton fabrics!

Here I used as much goldenrod as I could fit in my pot. I didn't weigh any plants or fabric samples - but all fabrics were mordanted beforehand. And again and again I find it exciting to see how different mordants affect the color! I poured water on the flowers and slowly warmed them up and simmered for about two hours. For dyeing I poured everything through a cloth, squeezed out the flowers, and then put fabrics and woolen thread in it. And after the first round, I dyed other fabrics to exhaust the dye bath.

Drying goldenrod for the winter

To store goldenrod, I cut the flowering shoots so that I mainly harvest flowers and a few leaves. If there are already small side shoots, I cut above them so they flower again soon. It is best to harvest the flowers before they have fully opened, otherwise they ripen into fluffy seeds that spread everywhere like tiny parachutes.
To dry them, I hang goldenrod bouquets upside down, or lay them on paper or a lattice. In a dry and shady place, in my case in our garden shed. Once dry, I put them in large paper bags or cloth bags. To save space, you can strip the dry leaves and flowers off the almost woody stems before packing them.

To dye with the stored goldenrod, I first soak the dried plant in cold water overnight before carefully heating them to extract the dye.

Natural blue: Salt and fresh indigo leaves

Frische Blaetter von Japanischem Indigo zum Faerben

Diese Methode zum blau färben mit Indigo ist mir inzwischen besonders lieb, weil sie so zugänglich ist. Ohne viel Zubehör kann ich direkt von den Pflanzen im Garten das Indigoblau aus frisch gepflückten Blättern kneten. Am besten funktioniert es mit den frischen Blättern vom Dyer's knotweed (auch Japanischer Indigo), Polygonum tinctorum,. Aber auch mit Woad, Isatis tinctoria, and achieved beautiful colors, albeit lighter and more greenish. All it takes is a small amount of salt and the fabric. Compared to the various indigo vats that are used to dye blue, this is a lot simpler.

A Japanese craft, travelling the world

Vor der Anleitung noch ein wenig Kontext: Zum ersten Mal habe ich von dieser “salt rub method” in einer Facebook-Gruppe gelesen. “Indigo pigment extraction methods” I highly recommend to join the group if you want to grow any indigo plant. A global community sharing experiments, learning, questions. The group is brillant! Whether you are gardening in pots or in a large field, here you will find others who are trying the same, helpful documents and a place for questions that might arise. The group was founded by Brit Boles, also known as seaspellfiber on Instagram.
So that's where I first saw this video, of a Japanese indigo dyer, and her demonstrating this "salt rub method". The dyery, Ohara Koubou, is located north of Kyoto.

How to dye blue with indigo and salt

This method works best on animal fibers such as silk and wool. You can pre-treat vegetable fibers with soy milk if you want to dye them using this method.
Pick the leaves - for a strong color it should be at least twice the weight of the fabric in leaves. Work as quick as possible. This method works thanks to enzymes in the leaves, which are broken down by heat over time.
I tear the leaves once and start adding a tablespoon of salt. Now the leaf mass is kneaded with the salt until more and more liquid comes out - depending on the amount of leaves add a little more salt. Then add the fabric (previously soaked in water and squeezed out) into the mass and massage the liquid into the fabric. When you're dyeing wool, rubbing it can felt the fibers. In that case, just gently knead the liquid into the fiber.


Depending on the time of harvest and the fiber, the hues vary from blue to more turquoise-green tones. My dye results with woad leaves were particularly variable - I only got real shades of blue with the dye knotweed. If you want to dye a more "typical" indigo blue, I'd recommend vatting your indigo.
But you can also use the salt method for deeper shades. To do this, overdye several times. However, you will need fresh indigo leaves for this, unlike a vat, in which you can dip your fibers repeatedly.
I hope give this method a try! I look forward to the time the plants are ready for it every year.

Local colour, global context

I think it's great and important to experience dye plants in a very local and accessible manner. Gardens and even overlooked backyards are so valuable to enable that. And it's so very empowering to be able to dye textiles ourselves with means that are understandable and tangible. For me, this is a very important part of a sustainable clothing culture. At the same time I ask myself more and more – where is the line between appreciation and cultural appropriation is. In this case, too. (There are many interesting thoughts on this tagged with #decolonisethegarden on Instagram.)


Die (Weiter-)Verbreitung von Pflanzen ist “natürlich”, und Teil ihrer Überlebensstrategie. Auch gibt es eine lange Geschichte von Menschen, die Pflanzen gehegt, kultiviert und mit sich genommen und damit weiterverbreitet haben. Aber ich möchte genau hinschauen, wie leicht wird die Realität der Kolonialisierung umerzählt und unsichtbar gemacht. Wie der Rest unserer Welt sähen auch unsere Gärten sehr anders aus ohne Beutezüge der Kolonialmächte. Die nicht nur Sklaven, Waren, Reichtum, fremde Pflanzen verschifften, sondern dabei auch die Idee, dass die Welt unser Garten ist, in dem wir uns überall bedienen können. Ungerechterweise dürfen sich nur manche bedienen, und andere ackern, um den Garten zu pflegen, und selbst ureigene Kulturtechniken und religiöse Praktiken sind Teil des Selbstbedienungsbüffets. Die Idee ist tief verankert und trägt quasi eine Tarnkappe – lange habe ich sie deswegen gar nicht bemerkt. Umso mehr ein Grund, jetzt genauer hinzugucken. Hast du dazu Gedanken? Wir können uns gern in den Kommentaren dazu austauschen!

To conclude, I want to recommend a book. This is for you if you want to work with fresh indigo: ohn Marshall's “Soulful Dyeing for All Eternity. Singing the Blues”. It's a fantastic ressource.

Dye plants in the summer garden

Collage von zwei Bildern: links ein orangeleuchtender Strauß von Schwefelkosmee, rechts ein Koerbchen voller Blüten von Ringelblume, Mädchenauge und Schwefelkosmee

What better way to start this new blog on a new website with a garden tour? This spring, when workshops were cancelled due to the pandemic, I was happy to ship many dye seeds to plant dye enthusiasts. Instead of meeting in workshops, I found myself starting dye seeds at home and share the process on stories at Instagram. The whole process is saved in the highlights. And this is what became of the tiny plants!

Blue: Indigo bearing plants

Dyer's knotweed or Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorum,and woad, Isatis tinctoriatwo very different plants, both contain precious indigo. The woad plants, first damaged by hail in June, now nibbled on, is still smaller than last year at this time. I already was able to have a first little harvest from Japanese indigo, mainly to encourage the plants to grow back more and bushier.
I'm curious to watch their development this year, because after two very warm summers it has been quite cool and windy a lot of the time this year, not ideal conditions for this plant. Woad, too, contains most indigo when it's exposed to lots of sunshine.

Flowers for dyeing

So my indigo harvest so far was very modest. I hope it will be sunnier again soon and more will follow! In the meantime, however, harvesting of the flowering dye plants has begun - dyer's marigold, Tagetes erecta (two different varieties this year), bright orange cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus, and delicate tickseed, Coreopsis tinctoria.

...and pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, these flowers can also be used for dyeing. But I prefer to make oil extracts from them.

The two yellow dye plants have struggled a bit so far: Weld, Reseda luteola, and dyer's chamomile, Anthemis tinctoria. I did get to harvest a bit of both, but don't expect much more. Many a weld plant did simply dissapear over night, and I'm not sure who snacks on them. Only a handful of plants survived, but I'm determined to try again next year.


The chamomile plants from last year in particular have already bloomed profusely, and then some just died within a few days, heavily infested with aphids. I usually rely on beneficial insects like the ladybug larvae and time to fix issues like that, but this time they weren't fast enough it seems. Crossing my fingers the plants that made it through will recover!

Red dyes in the garden

And lastly, madder, Rubia tinctorum. There might finally be a harvest here at the end of summer, though I got so attached to the plant that I'm not sure I'll actually do it! This is the only one of the plants that I grow for dyeing that stores the coveted dye in the roots. Harvesting is recommended only from the third year. By then the roots are nice and thick.
If you have them in your garden, you could also carefully dig out some roots from under the plant for small tests, but I never did.
The older madder plants are starting to set flowers right now – from many flowers usually get a handful of seeds, and suspect someone nibbles on them when they're young!