Brush Country

The plant matter is boiled in salty water to extract the dye. The jar on the right contains an experimental batch of dye made from spinach.

I haven’t been able to muster much enthusiasm for cleaning cupboards or organizing closets. Instead, I try to find something to take me outdoors. Lately, I have been interested in what uses we humans have made of all the native Brush Country plants. Some produce edible fruit; some make good fence posts; a few are useful in building shelters, and many can serve as firewood. But the use of native plants as dyestuffs intrigues me the most.

In March, when Fringed Puccoon was blooming, I learned that the roots of this wildflower were used by indigenous peoples as the source of a yellow dye. I flagged a large puccoon to investigate this property after the blooming season. Meanwhile, I read up on dyeing fibers with natural vegetable dyes. 

I started with Edible and Useful Plants of the Southwest: Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona by Delena Tull. My first question was what sort of fibers would work for dyeing. I thought about cotton, but Delena said that “animal fibers are the best for dyeing with natural vegetable dyes.” She suggested wool, but mohair, silk and dog hair were also good. Dog hair! Oh, no! I decided I would experiment with cotton.

And I would start simply. A You-Tube video, designed to introduce children to dyeing cloth, demonstrated the use of ordinary kitchen items: a big pot, salt, a blender, a microwave and several grocery store vegetables. Plain white 100% cotton tee-shirts were the substrate. My first attempt was with beets. I boiled them, spun them in a blender, filtered the extract and poured it on a prepared tee-shirt. After letting the shirt sit in the dyebath overnight, I dried it and examined the color. It was sort of pink…with heavy overtones of gray. And it had an odd smell, rather like a compost pile. I ran it through the wash and, fortunately, that removed the smell. Unfortunately, washing also removed the pink color, too. I was left with a shirt that was decidedly dingy-gray.

I repeated the process with spinach. The resulting tee-shirt was a pale yellow-green. I liked it. However, it too had an odor, rather like the water green beans had been cooked in. Again, washing removed the odor…and most of the color. The shirt was now the dingy-yellow hue of old tube socks.

Maybe grocery store vegetables were not the best dye sources. Time to try that puccoon. I dug up the flagged plant and chopped up the roots. There was only about a half cup of material but when I combed the pasture looking for more puccoon plants, I couldn’t find any. Puccoon is notorious for dying back after blooming and becoming nearly invisible. So, I went with the small amount of dyestuff and dyed another tee. This one turned out to be a pale grayish tan. In other words, dingy.

I needed more material. A Field Guide to Common South Texas Shrubs by Taylor, Rutledge and Herrera described another Brush Country plant of which I had plenty: Brasil. Brasil (Condalia hookeri) is also known as bluewood condalia or sometimes bluewood brasil. It is a “major component of South Texas brush…and is a valuable wildlife food plant because its fruit ripens throughout the season.” The sentence I focused on was “The wood has been used for fuel and to make a light red, pink or blue dye.” Okay, a blue dye would be nice.

I selected a Brasil shrub that was growing out into a sendero. It was due to be pruned back to keep the trail open, so I didn’t feel bad about removing a important wildlife food plant from our brush. I had to enlist my husband to use his “chop-saw” to cut the hard trunk, which was only about two inches in diameter, into chunks. The heartwood was a pretty bluish color. Maybe that is where the bluewood name came from. And maybe it would produce a pretty blue dye.

I processed the chunks of Brasil wood and dyed a tee-shirt. The shirt did not turn out blue like I had expected but it was a nice, rosy color. Moreover, the color did not wash out; it was a colorfast dye. Success! I was pleased.

Now I am ready to try other Brush Country plants: Agarita (for a bright yellow), Kidneywood (for orange), and Prickly-Pear fruits (for magenta). If I find some Prickly-Pear pads with those cottony patches of insects, known as cochineal insects, I will be glad to try my hand a making that historically important dye, cochineal red. Won’t that be fun?

Texas Master Naturalist Columnist: Brush Country Backyard