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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Herb and Plant Dye


This is an activity designed to have young people collect plant materials to make plant dyes. The student can use these dyes to paint pictures of the things they saw while they collected the materials or to dye cloth for later use in art projects. Make use of the collecting time to teach conservation practices in collecting. The materials collected should not noticeably change the environment of the area in which they were found. In some parts of the country and in national parks, it is against the law to pick wildflowers and plants. Find out if this is the case in your area. Also investigate to avoid any poisonous plants. (Be sure to supervise carefully your students throughout this activity. Make sure no students attempt to taste any of the plants or berries they collect.)

For information on dyeing fabric, check out this site: Making Natural Dyes for Crafting

Common Dyes

Materials:The plant materials below may be available in your area:

Color Plant Source
Blue-violet Cherry roots
Purple Elderberries, black raspberries
Reddish-purple Pokeweed berries
Red-pink Dandelion roots, cherries, strawberries, red raspberries, cardinal flowers, sorrel roots and bark, hemlock bark
Violet Grapes
Blue Blueberries (boiled)
Dark brown Walnut husks (boiled)
Reddish Brown Buckeye husks
Yellow Goldenrod (boiled), willow leaves, marsh marigolds, ash (inner bark), St. Johnswort flowers (boiled), onion skin, tulip trees' leaves, ragweed, burdock, Osage orange roots and bark (boiled)
Rose tan Birch bark, willow bark, sassafras roots
Green Plantain leaves and roots (boiled), nettle (roots, stalk, leaves), lily of the valley leaves
Yellow-orange Bloodroot (boiled)
Salmon Cherry bark
Black Walnut husks, sumac leaves

Blossoms should be in full bloom, berries ripe and nuts mature.

To make the dye solution:

Chop plant material into small pieces and place in a pot. Double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Strain. Place in a jar.

Some Historical References of American Indian Use of Plants and Herbs for Dye

This plant has deeply lobed leaves. There are 3-5 lobes per leaf. The leaves are arranged alternately on stems that may grow to a height of 10 feet. The yellow flower has drooping petals and a green conical center. American Indians used coneflowers to make yellow or orange. It was used in basketry and on animal skins and feathers. The Ojibwa had additional uses for the coneflowers. They used a poltice of the blossoms for burns and a compound made from the roots for indigestion. The coneflower leaves were sometimes used in a spring salad.

The bark of the three-lobed sumac was used by some American Indians to produce a red-brown. The berries were also used after mashing and fermenting without cooking to make a dusty pink on wool.

This plant produces one white flower with 8-10 flowers. The flower is taller than its leaves. A single lobed leaf will wrap around the stem of the flower. The juice of the stem is orange or red. American Indians would rub fresh roots on wooden tools to dye them orange.

Bloodroot processing: Cut fresh roots into small pieces and soak for an hour before boiling. Boil for 30 minutes and strain. Heat the dye bath until it is lukewarm. Add wool that has been mordanted with alum and simmer until receiving the desired color. Rinse and dry.

Butternut trees may grow 40-60 feet in height. The compound leaves of 11-17 leaflets are rough and thin and arranged alternately on the branches. The oval, pointed nuts are covered with sticky, green, hairy husks. American Indians used roots and bark for dyes. Since butternut trees did not grow everywhere, the Chippewa would take packets of the inner bark from place to place with them. In New England the colonists used the bark for tans and browns. During the Civil War, it was used for confederate uniforms. This gave the name "butternuts" to confederate soldiers.

The black walnut tree is native to central and eastern U.S. It is a very tall tree growing to a height of 130 feet. The trunk is covered with a dark brown to black bark. The leaves of 9-15 slightly toothed leaflets are hairy on the undersides. Thick husks protect the nuts. The roots release a chemical that prevents new seedlings from growing near the tree. Black walnut shells were used in 1st century Rome to keep hair from turning white. Pliny records boiling shells with oil, ashes, lead, and earthworms. The leaves and husks are most often used to produce the dyes, but bark, catkins, and the heartwood may also be used.

These trees are easily identified by their white bark which is easily peeled. The bark has layers which readily separate to reveal a bright orange inner surface. The leaves of the white birch are simple toothed leaves. In spring catkins may be seen on the branches. The trees grow from 40 to 70 feet tall. American Indians boiled bark from the white birch with ashes of cedar bark to create a red dye. It was said that no man or outsider should be allowed to look into the dye.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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