Dye Plants from the Garden

CMBG At Home, Gardening, Horticulture

Plants are just endlessly giving. From food to medicine, clothing to building materials, it’s a rabbit hole we’re happy to dive into. Today we talk plant dyes. Here are Horticulturist Jen Dunlap’s top five, some of which can be found in the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden.

Dyer’s Chamomile:

  • Also known as golden Marguerite, dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) is one perennial that’s done well here during this year’s drought. It spreads easily and its flowers (which give us warm shades of yellow dye) are fragrant and last a surprisingly long time. Even if you don’t want to grow it for dyeing purposes, this bushy plant produces masses of sweet, small daisy-like yellow flowers that pollinators love.


  • Dyer’s weld (Reseda luteola) creates a bright yellow dye, used as a paint and fabric colorant since the first century B.C. This biennial plant will produce a basal rosette in its first year and a tall spike of a flower stalk in its second (which bees love). Drought-tolerant and with a long flower life, this is a plant worth putting in the dye garden.


  • Used primarily for its dark berries, pokeweed or pokeberry, a native perennial, (Phytolacca americana) produces a purple/magenta dye. Note that this plant is toxic, so handle with care and always wear gloves. Pokeweed can withstand poor soil conditions, happy in either full sun or partial shade. (For those who like detail, pokeweed berries produce a stain rather than a dye, which means that it’s not as fixed and will change color over time and with washing.

Phytolacca americana

Black-eyed Susan:

  • This native perennial (Rudbeckia hirta) produces a fun, bright apple-to-olive green and can be found growing wild. At the Gardens, we cultivate this pollinator-friendly plant, but if you choose to forage, remember always to ask permission of the landowner and leave plenty for pollinators.

The compost bin:

  • So many food scraps made wonderful dyes! Experiment with avocado skins and pits, beet scraps, red cabbage leaves, tea, onion skins, and elderberries, just to name a few.

Rudbeckia hirta


  • I always put off dyeing projects because I don’t want to source alum, aluminum, or copper mordent supplies. But natural dyes won’t adhere to fibers (in this case, wool, silk, or animal fibers) without a mordent. Traditionally, metals like copper, iron, and tin have been used, but they’re not the most environmental or nontoxic choice. Try alum (hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate), often found in grocery stores near canning supplies. Just add alum to the dye bath, mix well, and add your fiber.


  • Fixatives are used with cottons and linens (plant-based fabrics). Unlike mordents, there are lots of household items you can use: salt, tannins (black tea, sumac or rhubarb leaves), vinegar, baking soda, and cream of tartar are all options.

Safety first! Some mordents, fixatives, and dye plants are toxic, so proceed with care. Never use the same pots and utensils for dyeing as you use for cooking. Always wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. Dispose of dye baths safely.