The Herborium ~ Your Online Herbal

Herbs for Dye



Man has been using plants to dye cloth and other materials for centuries, the first recorded use is as early as A.D. 700; But quite likely herbs have been used for dyes many thousands of years .

Fresh plant material is preferred in preparing the "dye bath," since they yield their colors easily, whereas dried plants and roots must be soaked for several hours. Cloth, or skeins of wool are dipped or soaked in the herbal dye bath solution and then hung to dry. Today, "mordants" are often used to deepen and "fix" colors Some popular mordants used today are chrome, tin, iron and cream of tartar.

Often, plants produce a very different dye color than you might expect based on their general appearance. The paintbrush plant, for instance, yields a beige-colored dye in spite of its bright red flowers. Lichen, which ranges in color from white to bright green, produces an orange dye.



Scottish tartan blues, purple

Elecampane has been used since the days of ancient Greece and Rome and was included in the U.S. Pharmacopeia as a remedy for bronchial congestion. The common name horse-heal may refer to this wild sunflowers traditional use in healing skin infections in horses and sheep. It grows in damp pastures and shady places throughout Europe, temperate Asia and North America. It was well cultivated in medieval herb and monastery gardens and was used in England before the Norman conquest. Immigrants to the New World brought the plant to North America with them.
Flowers: Large, yellow, solitary or a few, 2 to 4 in. across, on long, stout peduncles; the scaly green in­volucre nearly 1 in. high, holding disk florets surrounded by a fringe of long, very narrow, 3-toothed ray florets. Stem: Usually unbranched, 2 to 6 ft. high, hairy above. Leaves:Alternate, large, broadly oblong, pointed, saw-edged, rough above, woolly beneath; some with heart-shaped, clasping bases. Preferred Habitat:Roadsides, fields, fence-rows, damp pastures. Flowering Season:July – September Distribution:Nova Scotia to the Carolines, and westward to Minnesota and Missouri.



Bright yellows, golds

Parts of some goldenrods can be edible when cooked.
Goldenrods can be used for decoration and making tea. Goldenrods are, in some places, held as a sign of good luck or good fortune. They are considered weeds by many in North America but they are prized as garden plants in Europe, where British gardeners adopted goldenrod long before Americans did as garden subjects. Goldenrod only began to gain some acceptance in American gardening (other than wildflower gardening) during the 1980s.

They have become invasive species in other parts of the world including China; and Solidago canadensis which was introduced as a garden plant in Central Europe, has become common in the wild and in Germany is considered an invasive species that displaces native vegetation from its natural habitat.

Honey from goldenrods often is dark and strong due to admixtures of other nectars. However when there is a strong honey flow, a light (often water white), spicy-tasting honey is produced. While the bees are ripening the honey produced from goldenrods it has a rank odor and taste, but finished honey is much milder.



Yellow, gold, brown

Hollyhocks are popular garden ornamental plants, cultivars selected, particularly from A. rosea. The flowers have been selected for variations in colour, with dark purple, red and white-flowered plants available in addition to the colours found in wild plants.

Hollyhocks are very drought resistant, and do well in full sun locations that might be too hot or dry for other plants. They produce large, flat coin-shaped seeds (1/2" diameter) that seem to grow easily wherever they drop. While an individual plant might only live a handful of years, by that time chances are good it will leave plenty of descendants. They have very long taproots which make transplanting difficult.

In Iranian ancient herbal medicine, a drink made of the flower (Althaea officinalis or Marshmallow) boiled in water, is well known for the treatment of dry cough, respiratory disease, bowel irregularity and menstrual irregularity. The root of the plant, as well as the seeds, have other medicine applications in traditional Persian medicine.

Hollyhocks are incorporated into the official seal (mon) of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan.



Indigo blue

Indigo is one of the original sources of indigo dye. It has been naturalized to tropical and temperate Asia, as well as parts of Africa, but its native habitat is unknown since it has been in cultivation worldwide for many centuries. Today most dye is synthetic, but natural dye from I. tinctoria is still available, marketed as natural coloring. The plant is also widely grown as a soil-improving groundcover.

True indigo is a shrub one to two meters high. It may be an annual, biennial, or perennial, depending on the climate in which it is grown. It has light green pinnate leaves and sheaves of pink or violet flowers. The plant is a legume, so it is rotated into fields to improve the soil in the same way that other legume crops such as alfalfa and beans are.

Dye is obtained from the processing of the plant's leaves from a fermented solution is mixed with a strong base such as lye, pressed into cakes, dried, and powdered. The powder is then mixed with various other substances to produce different shades of blue and purple.

Lady's Bedstraw


Red, brick, coral

Lady's Bedstraw is a herbaceous perennial plant of the family Rubiaceae, native to Europe and Asia. It is a low scrambling plant, with the stems growing to 60-120 cm long, frequently rooting where they touch the ground. The leaves are 1-3 cm long and 2 mm broad, shiny dark green, hairy underneath, borne in whorls of 8-12. The flowers are 2-3 mm in diameter, yellow, and produced in dense clusters. It is related to the plant Cleavers.

In the past the dried plants were used to stuff mattresses, as the coumarin scent of the plants acts as a flea killer. The flowers were also used to coagulate milk in cheese manufacture and, in Gloucestershire, to color the cheese Double Gloucester. In Denmark, the plant (known locally as gul snerre) is traditionally used to infuse spirits, making the uniquely Danish drink bjæsk.

Frigg was the goddess of married women, in Norse mythology. She helped women give birth to children, and as Scandinavians used the plant Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum) as a sedative, they called it Frigg's grass.



Shades of red

Madder has been used since ancient times as a vegetable red dye for leather, wool, cotton and silk. For dye production, the roots are harvested in the first year. The outer brown layer gives the common variety of the dye, the lower yellow layer the refined variety. The dye is fixed to the cloth with help of a mordant, most commonly alum. Madder can be fermented for dyeing as well (Fleurs de garance). In France, the remains were used to produce a spirit as well.

The roots contain the acid ruberthyrin. By drying, fermenting or a treatment with acids, this is changed to sugar, alizarin and purpurin, which were first isolated by the French chemist Pierre Jean Robiquet in 1826. Purpurin is normally not colored, but is red when dissolved in alcalic solutions. Mixed with clay and treated with alum and ammonia, it gives a brilliant red colorant (madder lake).

The pulverized roots can be dissolved in sulfuric acid, which leaves a dye called garance . Another method of increasing the yield consisted of dissolving the roots in sulfuric acid after they had been used for dyeing.



Red to foods

Perilla is a genus of annual herb that is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae. In mild climates the plant reseeds itself. There are both green-leafed and purple-leafed varieties which are generally recognized as separate species by botanists. The leaves resemble stinging nettle leaves, being slightly rounder in shape. It is also widely known as the Beefsteak plant. Its essential oils provide for a strong taste whose intensity might be compared to that of mint or fennel. It is considered rich in minerals and vitamins, has anti-inflammatory properties and is thought to help preserve and sterilize other foods.

It is sometimes known as purple mint, Japanese basil, or wild coleus (like basil and coleus, it is a member of the mint family).

Perilla frutescens has been widely naturalized in the United States and part of Canada, from Texas and Florida north to Connecticut and into Ontario, and west to Nebraska. It can be weedy or invasive in some of these regions.
The purple type is used to dye umeboshi (pickled ume) red or combined with ume paste in sushi to make umeshiso maki.

Rose Mallow


Browns, black

Rose Mallow is found in wetlands and along the riverine systems of the southeastern United States from Texas to the Atlantic states, its territory extending northward to southern Ontario.

There exists in nature numerous forms and petal colors range from pure white to deep rose, and, except for one genome, all have an eye of deep maroon. Taxonomic consensus is lacking for the nomenclature of the multiple sub-species. The complete flowers are born apically, whereas the related Hibiscus laevis carries bud and bloom along the stem. In Canada it is listed as a species of special concern by the Species at Risk Act.

Propagation can be accomplished by seed sown 0.6 cm (1/4-inch) below media and kept constantly moist, or by crown divisions during winter dormancy, and some success can be achieved by hard-wood stem cuttings. Numerous hybrids of the native North American Hibiscus species have been released by the commercial nursery trade. In cultivation the species or the hybrids can be an attractive addition to a bog garden or other water feature, not only adding visual appeal but also enhancing wildlife value for nectar-feeders and birds.



Yellow dye for food

The history of saffron cultivation reaches back more than 3,000 years. The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus was Crocus cartwrightianus. Human cultivators bred wild specimens by selecting for unusually long stigmas. Thus, a sterile mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, C. sativus, emerged in late Bronze Age Crete.
The domesticated saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It is often mistaken for the more plentiful common autumn crocus, which is also known as meadow saffron or naked ladies (Colchicum autumnale) and has been the cause of deaths due to mistaken identity. However, saffron in high dosage can also be posionous. It is a sterile triploid form, possibly of the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus that originated in Central Asia. The saffron crocus resulted when Crocus cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. Being sterile, the purple flowers of Crocus sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction depends on human assistance: corms, underground bulb-like starch-storing organs, must be dug up, broken apart, and replanted.



Christine Nyland 2016