Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2003
Regional Report

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Gardener Jane Haynes created a rainbow of color samples using plants as natural dye sources.

Natural Plant Dyes

Whew! It's hot in my garden with the record-breaking heat that's been hammering the Phoenix area. Rather than fight it, I choose to think of July and August as the equivalent of snowy winters in other parts of the country. It's a good time to hide indoors and tinker with less intense garden related activities, like making natural dyes from plants.

Solar Dying Method
Jane Haynes, a fellow member of the Arizona Herb Association, showed me how easy it is to dye wool yarn using a "sun tea" method. It's similar to making a jug of tea, in which you let the sun do the work heating the water rather than boil it on the stove.

Simply fill a large jar about two-thirds full with plant matter, stems and all. Fill with water. Add 2 tablespoons alum and 2 teaspoons cream of tartar (dissolved first in warm water). These help "set" the dye. Shake vigorously. Wet the yarn and put it in the jar to soak. Put the lid on and place in full sun. Give it a good shake daily. The process takes 2 to 7 days, depending on the color intensity. When the yarn is the color you want, squeeze it out and rinse with clear water. It's that simple!

What Colors?
It would seem logical that a yellow flower like coreopsis would produce a yellow dye, which it does. However, the color of a flower or leaf is not always the dye color that results. The silvery brittlebush foliage also produces yellow dye.

An indigenous insect, rather than a plant, is a wonderful source of bright red as well as purples and lavenders. Cochineal is a barely visible scale insect that lives on many cacti. It secretes a white, cottony-looking substance as protection, which is easy to see. It may be especially abundant on Opuntia cactus, such as prickly pear and cholla, coating the pads with blobs of white. I currently have some cochineal on a plant by my front door, which annoys me everytime I come and go, so now there's a good excuse to scrape it off.

I continue to collect empty jars (note to self: eat more pickles) and contemplate what to experiment with next. Unfortunately, I'm not a knitter or weaver, but perhaps that's another project for a long hot summer.

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