I’ve always been intrigued by the human fascination with color. Why have human beings spent time and energy on making things whose sole purpose is to impart color — for little (apparently) practical reason? I’m not grateful for it, but it is still a bit of a mystery. Anyway, to business… Technically, a dye is a substance that works by binding chemically with the material to which it is imparting color. This differentiates dyes from pigments (covered in a separate section), although there are some substances that do both, depending on the way they’re used.

  • Acacia (Acacia spp.)
  • Alizarin (Madder, Rubia spp.)
  • Anatto (Achiote tree, Bixa orellana)
  • Apatite
  • Berberine (Barberry, Berberis vulgaris)
  • Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
  • Brazilin (Brazilwood, Caesalpinia echinata)
  • Buckthorn (Rhamnus spp.)
  • Catechu (Catechu, Senegalia catechu)
  • Chica (Arrabidaea chica)
  • Flame of the Forest tree (Butea monosperma)
  • Galls (galls are abnormal growths on plants, that are a response to infection by insects, mites, or microbes)
  • Gambier (Uncaria gambir)
  • Henna (Henna tree, Lawsonia inermis)
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus spp.)
  • Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica)
  • Indigo (true Indigo, Indigofera tinctoria)
  • Kino (Eucalyptus, Barwood tree, Marri tree, Flame of the Forest tree). Kino is a resin with a distinctive chemical composition, found in several plants.
  • Lac insect (Kerria lacca)
  • Litmus (Archil, Roccella tinctoria)
  • Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum)
  • Noni (Morinda citrifolia)
  • Orcinol (Archil, Roccella tinctoria)
  • Old fustic (Maclura tinctoria)
  • Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
  • Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)
  • Saffron (Saffron crocus, Crocus sativus)
  • Sorrel (a.k.a. tanner’s dock, Rumex hymenosepalus)
  • Sumac (Rhus spp.)
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa). Used to make curcuma paper, an indicator paper (like litmus).
  • Valonia oak (Quercus ithaburensis)
  • Woad (Isatis tinctoria)
Seed pods from Indigofera tinctoria.
Indigo dye is made from the seed pods of Indigofera tinctoria. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
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