gathering (sort of a book review too, “Spectrum: Dye Plants of Ontario”)

Though i love my “Grand teints” ( classically proven dyes like madder, indigo, etc) natural dyes very much, and disdain the current trend of throwing any and all “food waste” materials in a pot to use as a “dye”, there are also the  lesser known dyes foraged locally by many cultures . (“Petit teints” are  the non fast/fugitive dyes such as red cabbage, most red/purple/pink/blue berries, most red/purple/pink/blue flowers, black beans, beets, etc.)

Yes, some *will* fade, some are rather anecdotal and some are still being promoted but are folklore with no actual extant or provable results, and there are some that while they may not last as long as the classics, they are still viable dyes.

To that end, i bought a copy of the much vaunted “Spectrum: Dye Plants of Ontario”, reasoning that much of what grows in Ontario, grows also where i am (Alberta), so that it’s worth exploring. I *do* want to use local plants, whether grown in my garden, or foraged on walks and day trips. I have an older book that is dedicated to Canadian dye plants, written in ’78, and at best a good laugh, and at worst very confusing if you don’t have any experience at all, but i’ve heard much good spoken of this Ontario volume. There’s also a classic book, out of print now, “Dyes from Lichens and Plants: A Canadian Dyer’s Guide” by Judy Waldner McGrath, 1977, which is more geocentric as it covers mostly plant materials above the 55th parallel! Even though Canada is so large and we do have some vastly different grow zones, many “weeds” flourish in all or most of our varied climes 🙂 Indeed, many of these plants may be in most of North America, at least the northern zones of the US.


There are 300 plants identified. I question some of them, though helpfully, some are referred to in other dye books, included in the bibliography for cross checking. (Again though, some still questionable….) I highly recommend again using a good clearly photographed plant ID book, as all illustrations are pen and ink drawings, better than the ’78 book mentioned above, but still, not drawn by qualified botanists…. (Forget the damn “plant app” nonsense–most of the results with those are too vague, and possibly dangerous if a poisonous hemlock is identified as Queen Anne’s Lace!)

Being so late in the year at this time, i will have to either immediately use what i find, or chance drying it and using it through the winter. Some dye stuffs locally foraged will not give as good results when dried : solidago is notorious for poor colour when stored, for instance, though tansy is just as good in my books dried as fresh. Too, let’s face it, most dye plants give yellow, yellow, yellow or yellow 🙂 Different mordants and/or modifiers may give different hues, and sometimes there’s a real difference between “commercial” dyes like osage overdyed with indigo as opposed to tansy overdyed with indigo, so it is still a valuable colour library.

There are no colour photos in this book, so though the results are described, perceptions may vary on the difference between “old gold” and “brassy gold”! Obviously if you’re interested enough in the potential of each plant, you’d do your own tests and quantify those descriptors with photos 🙂 Results are described with alum, chrome (A BIG BIG NO NON NO, mentioned IN the book now as a black hand (literally) over each entry), tin, copper and iron. CAVEAT: ALL FIBRES USED WERE WOOL.

So, my dried materials gathered this fall will be chosen firstly because i *know* people have had reasonable outcome with them , and secondly because they are in my immediate environs (few day trips left in the year now due to weather, season and work schedules).

  • Rumex Crispus –tested before with poor results, possibly due to season
  • Arctium minus –tested before with poor results due to small amount gathered
  • Artemisia –not sure which species we have, but there are several, and HIGHLY invasive/spreading
  • Equisetum –must be aware of where gathering as chemicals are heavily sprayed where i have gathered before
  • Tanacetum vulgaris and Solidago spp–used many times but still want to work with more
  • Cornus stolonifera–craploads by the river 🙂
  • Geranium maculatum—in my garden for years
  • Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus—who knew?
  • Malus–might as well use the leaves and bark from the broken apple tree–more good than taken away, chipped and sold to rich ladies who want “artisanal” mulch—– BWAHAHAHAAHHAHHA
  • Well, etc etc etc! (All Latin you notice: THAT is how you identify plants correctly with good plant ID books


PS There are also “stand by’s” in this book: coreopsis, dahlia, eupatorium, solidago, tansy, and more.

I have dried already some tansy, artemisia and yarrow. With the recent e-garbage run (old electronics), there’s plenty of room down in the Dye Dungeon now for storing dried materials in bags and boxes. All  tests, information, results will be in the “Alberta dye plants” category, though as i  mentioned, many of these are not as geocentric as just Alberta.

Off now to gather what from a distance looks a huge expanse of Rumex!

DogFaced Girl loves these expeditions, so no complaint there 🙂






Your thoughts? (Spammers, good luck on that.)

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.