Natural Dyes from Native Plants

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

Many people who own forestland are looking for new ways to use the native plants that grow there. One project would be to learn which plants will produce natural dyes and how to use them to produce finished items. Native plants have provided colors for paintings, craft decorations, foods and body art for thousands of years. Much of the knowledge about which plants to use, how to collect the right plant parts, how to extract the dyes and how to use the dyes has been lost. This resource from the University of Michigan lists the many plants in North America that Native Americans have used to produce dyes.

Natural dyes come not only from flowering plants, but also fungi and lichens. 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 – Fruits are easy to gather and prepare. Berries with thin skins, such as raspberries, blackberries and elderberries, need only brief cooking and crushing to extract the juice. Harder fruit will need to be soaked for 24 hours before cooking and should be crushed as far 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 – Leaves can be gathered at most times of the year, but those from deciduous plants like alder may produce vary variable results according to their age. Tough leathery leaves such as holly, ivy, or chinkapin oak will need to 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. They can also be gathered as part of land clearing or road building activities. 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.

So as you are working in your forest and rangelands, keep an eye out for plants that may provide the materials needed to produce unique gifts from your lands. 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.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist