Looking for Dye Plants for Farmers to Grow
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Wendy Weiss, University of Nebraska
Posted on: August 20, 2002

I am looking for dye plants for a farmer to test grow a one acre area in Nebraska, near Lincoln. We plan to seed safflower, which I grew successfully in my garden this summer, madder, which I expect to buy from you and I was hoping to try one more plant. Perhaps Hopi Black Dye sunflower or alkanet. For the alkanet, we need Anchusa tinctoria and you carry Anchusa officinalis. Any chance you might be able to get the tinctoria?

We do not have Anchusa tinctoria seeds. It is on our "wish list" of herbs to add to the Richters collection but it is not in commercial seed production as far as we know.

While this is still at the dream stage, I am hoping to inspire farmers to grow alternative crops in the form of natural dye plants. Any great ideas/suggestions you have are welcome.

For North American farmers, possibilities include dyer’s chamomile (listed as "marguerite, golden" in our catalogue) and weld, both sources of yellow dyes. Woad is another possibility; it is a source of blue dyes.

As for the madder, I have read that it is easy to grow from seed, but also that you can propagate it from the plant itself. I thought we could get root stock more quickly if we worked from your plants. Do I still have time to get the plants in the ground this season?

If you were to start with a few madder plants it will take time and a lot of effort to build up enough stock for one acre. I suggest that you start with bulk seeds sown in outdoor seed beds or plug trays. The seedlings or plugs are then transplanted to the field in rows 4-6 feet (1 m) apart, spaced 2 feet apart within the rows. Madder sprawls so they need more space than other crops. It will take 2-3 years to grow harvestable roots.

While we are in a drought here, we do still have access to water and will be able to water the plants.

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