Years ago my daughter was struggling to find a science fair topic. She wanted to study natural plant dyes but was discouraged since there wasn’t much growing during the winter. I told her there were plenty of dye options outside and to research tree wood, roots and bark for a few days and I’d help her.
We had dozens of empty canning jars, two stoves and a good supply of saucepans. We also had a big old house with wood floors, so I wasn’t worried about permanently staining or ruining anything.
A few days later our kitchen was full of canning jars with different colored liquids in them. Coat hangers with strips of pigmented cotton fabric hung about the room. She collected all the samples from our yard. It was fun for me because I knew several would surprise her.
The prettiest one was barberry. Boiling the wood and bark sample yielded a bright yellow color which was colorfast on cotton fabric without any mordant at all. A mordant is an additive such as alum, baking soda or vinegar that helps dye adhere to the material.
By far her strongest and darkest dye was from black walnut. Her fabric turned a rich brown. Had she used the husks color would have been even darker. Anyone who has ever shelled black walnuts can attest to their strong dying properties. I’ve walked around with brown hands for weeks at a time from husking walnuts or boiling traps in walnut husks to descent them.
Red cedar produced a reddish purple colorfast dye. I was actually expecting the dye to be even stronger, since the wood has such a rich color. Cherry roots dyed fabric purple as well, but not as effectively as cedar. Red Maple and sweetgum barks also yielded a somewhat reddish purple product, but not a particularly rich hue.
Sassafras was interesting because the wood and bark produced a yellow product, whereas roots dyed cotton a brownish orange. Birch dyed the material a light brown but the dye wasn’t particularly colorfast.
Willow roots and bark dyed the fabric a peach color. Persimmon had a slight peach hue but I’d consider the color closer to tan.
We have two different types of crabapples on our property. The bark from one died cotton cloth red, and quite a strong red. The other produced a tan colored product. Color from domestic apple wood and bark was only a faint brown.
Had her project been conducted in warmer weather there would have been almost limitless plant dyes she could have used. She could have found many green possibilities as well as stronger reds. In fall, pokeberries dye fabric a strong magenta color, but some type or mordant needs to be used to keep it colorfast.
Everything considered, the science project was a great learning experience for her and it was fun for the whole family as well. I had a good idea what she would learn, but there were samples that surprised me too. I wish I still had the pictures, but I lost them when my computer crashed a few years ago. I guess that has to happen to most of us before we smarten up and back things up.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.