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 Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Dyes from native North American plants


Topic:
Author: Nan Hampton and Anne Bossart
Date: Thursday - November 29, 2012
From: Saint Claire Shores, MI

QUESTION: Dear Mr. Smarty Plants, I have been working as a textile designer for many years and am now interested in harvesting native North American plants in order to create natural dyes. Which plant species of plants are the most effective in creating natural dyes and native to Michigan / Great Lakes region? Thank you so much, in advance!

ANSWER:

Our focus and expertise are with plants native to North America—"to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes."  We certainly aren't experts on dyes made from native plants but we can perhaps help you become one.  First, if you haven't seen or don't have a copy of Dyes from American Native Plants:  A Practical Guide by Lynne Richards and Ronald J. Tyrl, you should try to locate a copy.  It gives information about 158 native plants that have been used to make dyes of various colors.  It appears to be out of print, but there are sources via the internet with copies for sale.  Perhaps you could find a used copy by searching online. 

An excellent online source for information about plant uses is Evergreen, a Canadian organization, that has a Native Plant Database with the option to search by plant uses. On their "Advanced Search" page, if you select "only native species" under Identification and "Dyes" under Uses, you will get a list of native Canadian plants that have been used to make dyes.  Since you live near Canada, there is a good chance that they will also be native to Michigan.  You can check their nativity by visiting the USDA Plants Database and entering the scientific name in the search slot.  The resulting page will have a distribution map.   Alternatively you could  enter the scientific name in our Native Plant Database to find a distribution list by state or province.  The online Plants for a Future Database also has the option to search by uses.  Their database does contain plants not native to North America so be sure to check their "Range" entry.  To be sure that the plant is native to your region, you could then search in the USDA Plants Database to confirm its range.  Another source to explore is the University of Michigan–Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany database.  For example, Alnus incana (Gray alder) and Alnus viridis (Green alder) are mentioned as sources for red and brown dyes using both the bark and the wood and Mahonia spp. [e.g. Mahonia aquifolium (Hollyleaved barberry) is native to Michigan] is cited as making a yellow dye.

Hopefully, these resources will help you find the information you are seeking and then, perhaps, you will share your expertise by writing your own book "Dyes from American Native Plants."

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