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My garden is nothing special,” the lady I visited in a Peshawar suburb kept insisting. “I just have a few trees, very little vegetables, a few seasonal flowers and some herbs in pots. It isn’t anything special at all,” she said.

“Aah but it is,” I told her in all honesty as, quite unknowingly over a period of many years, she had accumulated a very interesting selection of plants from which a colourful range of natural dyes could be made. Although few people actually dye wool or cloth at home these days, it is still interesting to know from which plants dyes can be made.

Anchusia officinalis is my own favourite dye plant and a plant deserving a special place in any flower border. It was obviously very much at home in a partially-shaded area of my Peshawar garden and had grown to a height of almost five feet.

Rediscovering the lost art of creating dyes from plants

And it was liberally garlanded with brilliant azure blue flowers.

“This one can get a bit overpowering,” the lady said “and self-seeds all over the place, and comes up, year after year as regular as clockwork. I keep trying to get rid of it but it simply refuses to go away. I think it must grow wild as I don’t recall planting it.”

After explaining that Anchusia officinalis is valued for the bright red dye extracted from its roots — the traditional natural red dye of the hand-woven carpet world — the lady recalled being gifted seeds by an Afghan visitor. Presumably these stunning plants are the result. She could now be convinced that the plants deserved to be left to flourish and multiply at will.

We moved on to other dye plants in her private sanctuary and found, to her delight, plants such as Hollyhocks, hibiscus, daylilies, roses, echinacea and French marigolds. Each plant has its own inherent colour to release, but only to those who know how to be able to extract it.

Many of you will knowingly or unknowingly have dye plants in your gardens. This column is not the place to explain natural dye methods but a list of some of the most common natural dye plants is included here for general interest.

For red and brown shades: Bamboo, beetroot, crab apples, juniper, poppies, anchusia officinalis, raspberries, strawberries and henna.

Yellow shades: French marigolds, turmeric, larkspur, sunflowers, carrots, saffron, pomegranate, bay leaves, oxalis, coreopsis, celery, crocus, daffodils, and Queen Anne’s lace.

Greens: Rosemary, eucalyptus, artichokes, rudbekia, echinacea, chamomile, peony, mint, grass, hydrangea, larkspur, marjoram, nettle, peach leaves, sage, sorrel, antirrhinum, spinach, tea tree, yarrow, rumex, dahlia, and fenugreek.

Greys: Rosemary, eucalyptus, basil, daylilies and hollyhocks.

Browns: Walnuts, hollyhocks, fennel and henna.

Blues and purples: Grapes, Indigofera officinalis, echinacea, hibiscus, mulberry, maple, portulaca, red cabbage, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries and hyacinths.

Pinks: Camellia, roses, lavender, opuntia and avocado.

Orange and peach shades: Onions, Virginia creeper, weeping willow, balm, henna, eucalyptus and coreopsis.

This list is by no way exhaustive. There are literally thousands of species — ferns, cacti, lichen, mosses — and even soils from which dyes can be extracted either from the entire plant or its parts such as the leaves, flowers, seeds, bark or roots.

Natural plant dyes are making a comeback in some parts of the world but it is not possible to envisage growing enough to make a financial profit on a home garden scale. So those of you who went ‘Ding! Idea!’ while reading the above, relax. It is certainly not a viable proposition unless you come up with an idea which is absolutely and amazingly creative.

Aside from using natural plant dyes to dye pure wool, pure cottons, and other organic materials (you need to research how to ‘fix’ dyes through mordants), they can also be used to paint on paper or on organic fabrics. If you want to battle environmental issues, plant fibre residues left over from dye-making can be transformed into ‘one-off’ sheets of paper [in which bits and pieces of plant fibre are interestingly visible] with specially-designed presses.

Dedicating a part of your garden to the cultivation of dye plants — even if you have no intention of dyeing a single thing — is a wonderful idea. Not only will you be diversifying away from purely edible or purely ornamental plants but you will also actively be safeguarding dyeing knowledge for generations to come.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to [email protected] It is important to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened. No commercial queries please.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 30th, 2017

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