Planting Color

As a lifelong "plant geek" I'm always on the lookout for new plants and new things to do with the plants I already know. Sometimes that's discovering a lesser known culinary or medicinal use. Other times it's simply a new growing technique. But sometimes it's just about a fresh take on an old idea. In this case, natural plant dyes. 

Of course people have been using plants for dyeing since before recorded history, but ever since the invention of chemical pigments in the 1800s, natural dyeing fell out of common practice. The 1970's hippie and back-to-the-land movement created a small resurgence in plant-based dyeing but unfortunately, the earth-tone aesthetic of the period gave natural dyeing somewhat of an (undeservedly) bad reputation. Plant pigments offer a wide range of vibrant hues far beyond the muddy browns and greens! 

A contemporary artist who has done beautiful work demonstrating the vivid potential of plants is Sasha Duerr. I first met Sasha in 2015 when my company Garden Tribe, programmed her as part of our speaker series at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. Since then I've been fascinated by her stunning "compost colors" (on display in her Instagram feed) taken from plant refuse. Her book, Natural Color, is also an essential handbook (with an especially beautiful and useful color wheel diagram) for the natural dyer.

But Sasha was just my "gateway drug" to the world of plant-based dyes. After trying my own fledging experiments with loquat, eucalyptus and fennel leaves, I stumbled across the work of India Flint. India is an artist (originally from Australia) who travels the world making her own richly layered and unique botanical contact prints. She's written several books about her process which she also regularly documents in her Instagram feed.

By 2017 I finally stumbled across one of the true masters of natural dyeing, Michel Garcia. As a botanist, chemist, and dyer he has a profound understanding of both the history and the science of plant-based dyes. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a three day workshop from him at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden that was an intellectual deep dive into botanical pigments. We learned everything from how the practice of using alum in dyeing came out of a 17th century Spanish tax to fund the crusades, to the molecular diagrams for the chemical compounds in dye plants. But as enriching and  mind-expanding as the ethnobotany and phytochemisty was, that was just an appetizer to the visual feast of color that we were able to produce. The vibrant, saturated reds (Rubia tinctorum), yellows (Coptis japonica and Phellodendron amurense), oranges (Bixa orellana), and blues (Isatis tinctoria) bore no resemblance to the faded, muddy earth tones many associate with natural plant dyes.

 Dyestuffs and color samples in Michel Garcia's workshop at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, August 2017.

Dyestuffs and color samples in Michel Garcia's workshop at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, August 2017.

Although this masterclass with Michel was a hard act to follow, UC Berkeley Botanical Garden delivered another gem in January 2018 with a Lichen Dye workshop taught by Shelly Benson and Sarah Minnick from the California Lichen Society. Unlike a lot of the plant material used in Michel's class which mostly needs to be purchased (often already in powdered form), the lichen can all be foraged right in our own backyards (which is the same thing that initially drew me to Sasha and India's work).

 Lichen dye results from Shelly Benson and Sarah Minnick's workshop at UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, January 2018

Lichen dye results from Shelly Benson and Sarah Minnick's workshop at UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, January 2018

This well-organized class also had an interesting historical component (eg. I did not know the tans and browns in Harris tweed were originally created with the local Scottish lichen) as well as a scientific overview of the main growth forms and botanical structures of the 17,000 - 25,000 species of lichen worldwide. The range of colors obtained (especially when using in combination with pH modifiers ) were also beautiful. However, given the importance of foraging sustainably (only collecting unattached lichen and never more than 10% of locally abundant species) weighed against the quantities that would be needed to dye and substantial amount of cloth, left me feeling this probably wouldn't be a practice I'd be seriously pursuing. But my routine hikes in the woods now have an additional layer of enjoyment with my newfound understanding and appreciation for the ubiquitous lichen! 

 Dyeing linen in a dye bath made from avocado pits.

Dyeing linen in a dye bath made from avocado pits.

My conclusion from taking these enriching classes and following the work of these talented artists, is that my interest and orientation remains much more focused on plants (and colors) than on textiles, but I still enjoy exploring this tangential aspect of the botanical world. And sometimes it's just plain fun to make a pretty pink dye bath with avocado pits!