By Christine Lundsten McKahan – Five years ago, as my husband and I wandered around our two acres of newly purchased homesteading land, surrounded by rolling hills, grazing Holsteins and Wisconsin cornfields, goldenrod plant grew everywhere. We wondered if we would ever get rid of it or what to do with them. We later learned goldenrod plant would make a excellent natural dye for wool.
Although renovating our 100-year-old schoolhouse dominated our thoughts and actions, that first spring we pulled goldenrod plants out by the roots in our woods, where the plant had not taken over. When goldenrod did not return the following year, we attempted to eradicate more by hand. However, in a large meadow, pulling this overbearing pest out by the roots proved an endless, thankless task, as the field was pure goldenrod plant. My husband had taken to mowing paths through the spring growth and kept the meandering walks free of weeds all summer. Since this procedure decreased goldenrod plant growth, he walked the entire meadow with his lawn mower. We were left with some bare, lonely stalks sticking up through the dirt. I did not think there was much hope for grass, but the sod transformed into green growth that first year of being groomed. After mowing for two seasons, other plants have flourished in our meadow where only goldenrod plant was thriving. Wild roses, wild plums and evening primrose blossom in season and a wild berry patch of black caps keeps jars of jam on the shelves. Planting various lilies and lilac, white Siberian iris and the blue veronica, Russian sage and purple liatris, as well as other plants has turned this wasteland into an environment where wild woods intermingle with cultivated garden.
After years of pulling, mowing, and moaning, I have finally found a use for the persistent goldenrod plant. Recently, I taught a natural dye for wool workshop featuring goldenrod as a dye plant. When I gathered the goldenrod flower for a bouquet, I realized that this lacy, yellow vision was the transformation of a bothersome weed into a beautiful flower that could turn yarn to golden yellow.
As a spinner and weaver for the past 20 years, I have researched natural dyes for wool and my experiments with goldenrod plant have been successful. Its subtle shades of yellow, gold and tan are warm reminders of summer sunshine on winter’s woolen yarn. If you knit, crochet or weave, goldenrod flowers can turn into a palette of earthy color. As a spinner, I have blended dyed fleece into various fibers to give it a warm glow. “Dyed in the wool” refers to yarn from fleece spun after being dyed, a possible process with this plant. Anyone interested in surface design, such as batik, might be intrigued by the possibilities of this natural dye bath. A natural dye project with goldenrod plant may start you on a search for more weeds in your woods, garden and surrounding countryside. My experiments with goldenrod have made me aware of all the other native dye plants surrounding me — black-eyed Susans (a plant that attracts bees, too!) wild carrot and yarrow are all common weeds in my vicinity.
Also some of my favorite annuals and perennials produce color in a dye pot: Zinnias, dahlias, yellow cosmos, coreopsis, purple coneflowers and marigolds. Marigolds in vegetable gardens also serve a critical function of fending off garden pests. Goldenrod is a good beginning dye plant, since it is so plentiful and the results are so pleasing.
Harvesting Goldenrod Plant
Goldenrod plant can be harvested in the spring and summer. In the spring, its tender shoots yield a pale green. If you are pruning, pull it up by the roots. Discard the root for the dye bath. If you cut it off at the top of the shoot, it will bush out. Later in the season, when this plant earns its name, cut off only the gold flowers and collect them for a sunny yellow dye bath. Remember to remove the leaves, as they will give a chartreuse cast. If you want to experiment with shades, the color from the leaves is another possibility.
To start dyeing, some equipment is needed. An enamel pot, such as a canning pot, is essential. If starting with a small batch of plants, you may want to try a smaller pot. Stirring sticks or glass rods are also recommended. I always keep a supply of chopsticks on hand for lifting my fiber. Measuring cups and spoons are more crucial than a scale, but if you start production dyeing, a scale is an asset. You will need your kitchen stove for heating the dye bath, so clear the area and put down some floor covering. Large plastic buckets, preferably with tops, are helpful when straining the dye bath and disposing of the plant material. A window screen is best to strain the plants from the dye solution, but I have also used cheese cloth gathered and held at the edge of the pot. This can be unwieldy when dyeing with large quantities of plants, however. Protect your hands with heavy-duty rubber gloves and your clothing with an apron or old shirt.
To begin the process of dyeing, you will need to set the color in the fiber with a chemical called a mordant. If you are confused by using chemicals in this natural process, be careful which ones you use. Aluminum sulfate is commonly known as alum, for example, and is fairly innocent. When I am finished using alum to set color, I pour it on acid-loving plants such as blueberries or rhododendrons to nourish the plants. In some older dye books, however, chrome is mentioned. This mordant is toxic to you and the environment, so beware. You can also use tannin, a natural mordant found in sumac leaves, as well as bark and nut hulls. However, the tannic color in tannin can dominate the dye bath. Again, experimentation with this process is half the fun. No dye bath is exactly like the last one and the variation in color is exciting.
A recipe for a pound of fiber is to measure ¼ cup of alum and 4 tablespoons cream of tartar. Although you can buy cream of tartar at the grocery store do not confuse alum in the grocery store with aluminum sulfate, which you purchase at a weaving supply store. Pour enough water into an enamel pot to cover the wool. Stir in alum and cream of tartar. Submerge the yarn or raw fiber into the water. Heat to the boiling point and simmer for an hour. Hang the material to dry. Pour the excess alum solution on an acid soil plant.
Dye Bath Recipe
Collect your plant material. A good rule of thumb is to have as much plant as fiber. This is at least true with goldenrod flowers, but you may find other plants yield as much dye with less collected plant material, especially when they dry out. Goldenrod is best used fresh, but still yields color when dried. Fill the pot with plant material and cover with water. Boil at least one hour. At this point, you may want to let the dye bath stand at room temperature overnight. This will release more dye from the plants. To test the color, submerge a glass jar into the dye bath. The water should be brilliant yellow. Strain the dye bath through the screen into another container and dispose of the plant material into your compost pile. Pour the dye bath back into the dye pot. Submerge the mordant wool.
For spring shoots, bring to a boil and simmer one hour and remove. For harvested flowers, after simmering 10 minutes, remove from the bath for a warm yellow. Simmer another hour for golds and tans. After removing from the dye bath, rinse the yarn. You may think that you are washing all the color out, but the final results will surprise you.
While the beginning dyer will benefit from these basic recipes, others may be pleased to know that goldenrod does something besides make you sneeze. If you have not discovered its delicate beauty, a simple bouquet of goldenrod is sure to make you smile.
In autumn, when goldenrod plant is in full bloom, I walk around our two acres and appreciate the wild, flowering borders of goldenrod. I gaze in our old shed at the weathered wood wall covered with bunches of golden rod harvested as a natural dye for wool. I keep an earthenware vase filled with dried goldenrod and wonder why I ever thought of this wild flower as a weed.
Originally published in 2000 and regularly vetted for accuracy.