Dye plants

My Top 5 dye plants to start in the spring

As the spring dye plant growing season comes closer, I can’t help but feel the urge to get out into the garden again. Today on the blog I thought it would be nice to talk through my top five dye plants to plant in the spring. All these dye plants will dye wool and protein fibres.

#1 Dyer’s Chamomile (Anthemis Tinctoria)

Chamomile, a dye plant

Dyers chamomile is a very easy to grow dye plant. It has pretty, strong yellow flowers that give a yellow dye colour which can be steadily picked throughout the summer. To grow dyer’s chamomile in your garden, sew thinly in a seed tray indoors from now on. When the seedlings are big enough to handle, pot on into larger pots, and from there to where they will grow permanently. Dyer’s chamomile grows into quite a tall, bushy plant. They need quite a bit of water to keep them flowering. I use collected rain water and even washing up water, I use eco-wash liquid so its safe. Here in Cornwall the winters are usually quite mild, and this year my chamomile is sprouting from the cut back plants from last year. However, I will grow more from seed though to increase the potential flower crop. Chamomile dries and stores well from use all year round.

#2 Woad (Isatis Tinctoria)

I have tried several times to grow Woad for it’s lovely blue dye. Last year was the first year the seeds germinated, but I think I left it a bit late to cut the dye giving leaves as the colour was disappointing. This year I’m going to grow Woad again, and keep a closer eye on the leaves and when they need to be harvested. Woad seeds only last for 1 year, so be sure the seeds are as fresh as possible. Sew indoors in a tray in April and they should germinate readily. Do protect from slugs and snails when planting out the seedlings. Woad self seeds readily so you may get your own crop of self seeded plants next year.

There is a process to extract the blue colour from the leaves, ending up with a blue powder dye. However, I want to try the Rebecca Desnos salt rub method, described by Ria Burns in her blog. I’m happy to get a turquoise blue with this simple method rather than the complicated extraction method. Jane Deane has told me that this method is fugitive, ie the colour does not last. It’s fun to do, but not a recognised way of using Woad for lasting results.

#3 Madder (Rubia Tinctorum), my favourite dye plant!

Madder, a dye plant
Madder, a dye plant, gives a range of lovely colours

Madder is notoriously tricky to grow from seed, especially is the seed is saved and dried. However, madder grows very easily from root cuttings. There are several things to take into consideration when planning to grow madder.

  • It takes a long time (up to 4 years) to reach maturity for the roots to give a good dye colour.
  • It is an invasive, rapidly spreading plant that can take over the surrounding garden
  • When it is grown in deep, large tubs or planters, it needs plenty of water and feeding to keep the plant health and producing the juicy, dye giving roots.

Madder is my favourite dye plant because of the range of colours it can give. The colours range from a dark terracotta red, through peach and apricot to pale pink. Harvesting and using the roots is easy because they are fairly thick and fleshy when mature, and can be used fresh or dried. Thinner roots can also be replanted to grow some more.

#4 Coreopsis (Coreopsis Tinctoria)

Golden Coreopsis, an easy to grow dye plant

Coreopsis and its friend, Calendula are annual favourites in my dye garden. They are very easy to grow from seed and flower profusely all summer meaning they are very amenable to regular flower picking for a good crop. They can be planted in tubs and planters or raised beds, among the vegetables, or in the flower beds. Plant now in seed trays, or wait until the risk of frost has passed and sow the seeds where they are to bloom. They are a hardy plant, very tolerant or most conditions. Some plants may last for several years and can be divided and spread out. Bees and butterflies like coreopsis so they are an ideal dye plant to grow in a wild flower or nature garden.

#5 Tansy (Tanacetum Vulgare)

Tansy, a dye plant
Tansy flowers, a natural dye plant

Tansy is a hardy perennial, meaning it lasts for years. It grows very easily from seed indoors in the spring, and can be planted out after the risk of frosts. I like to grow tansy because it gives a beautiful pale yellow dye which works well with Saxon Blue (Tincture of Indigo) to give clear green colours. The flowers are like small, yellow buttons and are made of hundreds of tiny individual flowers.

Tansy is also known as Bitter herbs and has a long and interesting history of use. It certainly has a use as in insect and parasite repellent and has been used medicinally with varied results. However, DO NOT eat it. It can be very toxic. Tansy has a strong smell that can be unpleasant, but in a large vase, outside at a barbeque, they keep flies and wasps away.

You may notice that four of the Latin names for these 5 dye plants have the word Tinctoria which gives a clue that they give a dye colour, a tincture, tint etc. If you are thinking of growing your own dye plants, look for the word Tinctoria as this will usually mean that the plant gives some colour. Not all chamomile, (Anthemis) for example gives golden yellow, it’s the tinctoria varieties that do.

If you’d rather buy dye stuff than plant your own….read this!

In the next few weeks I am going to launch my own range of dye stuffs. Ethically sourced, they will be in eco pouches pre-weighed to dye at least 100g yarn or fibre. Keep watching the Gorgeous Yarns social media posts to find out more…..

Your Comments

  1. Slightly concerned that the salt method for dyeing with indican molecule bearing plants doesn’t carry the information that this method is highly fugative. So much so that I teach it as a novelty in my dye classes as a bit of fun alongside a proper reduction method.

  2. That’s good of you. Incidentally, there are many was of obtaining blues and greens from fresh indigo and woad leaves but not of them are fast, sadly. For that you need a reduction

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