A Lesson About Dye Plants: Broom

Several years ago, as a novice dye gardener, I was perusing dye books to determine which plants I could grow here in the mountains of North Carolina, and I found a mention of the plant called broom. I had never grown it before and had never dyed with it, so I ordered two of the plants that were specified in the book: Cytisus scoparius, otherwise known as scotch broom. I had seen this plant growing along the roadsides in the west and knew that this plant was very invasive. Were all of those plants a potential source of great color?

After the plant had been in the ground for a year, I did more investigation and learned that scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) was NOT the great dye plant I thought it might be. The one I should have planted was dyer’s broom, (Genista tinctoria). Other names for this dye plant are dyer’s greenwood or woad waxen. It has a long and distinguished history as a plant used for dyeing. In fact the word “tinctoria” is the latin word meaning “used for dyeing” and any plant that has “tinctoria” in its name has been traditionally used for dyeing. All dye plants, though, do not contain the word “tinctoria” in their name.

I ordered two dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria)  plants and put them into the bed outside my studio next to to the scotch broom. When both plants were large enough I did some dyeing and compared the samples. I needed to see for myself what, if any,  difference there was in the two plants. There was clearly “no contest” in the results obtained The dyer’s broom dyed both wool and cotton in brilliant yellows and yellow greens. The color is  very similar to the one I get from weld plants. In fact both weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) contain luteolin, which gives a clear yellow that is extremely fast to washing and light. The scotch broom (Cytisus scorpius) gave me a very pale yellow or beige color.

The scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) in my garden is blooming this spring for the last time. As soon as the flower “show” is over I plan to  remove it in order to make additional room for the dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria).

Last year I was able to harvest enough of the dyer’s broom (genista tinctoria) for several projects and dry some of the shoots and leaves for later use. Genista tinctoria has earned a place in my garden. I still have a lot to learn from this plant, such as when is the best time to harvest for dyeing or drying and how to keep it pruned properly. I have learned to do more research about my plants and ALWAYS to pay attention and use their latin or scientific names.

Cytisus scoparius, left Genista tinctoria, right
Cytisus scoparius, left. Genista tinctoria, right

5 thoughts on “A Lesson About Dye Plants: Broom

  1. Good job Catharine.
    In looking up another flower book today, I came across Symplocos tinctoria better known as Horse Sugar. Karen and I had planned on checking on its dye results and never did. It’s native and might be one you might check on. Yellow, of course.
    Betty

    1. I did know that there was a Symplocos tinctoria (horsesugar or yellow wood) native to the southeast region of the U.S. I even saw one of the small trees a few years ago in North Georgia. It was early spring and there were barely any leaves on the tree. I am wondering about its relation to the Symplocos that grows in Indonesia, a very important bio-accumulator of alum and used by the dyers to mordant cotton.There is a great deal of information on this symplocos on the Plant Mordant Website.
      Catharine

  2. Thanks for this post. Very informative. If you get a chance when you photograph, could you capture some real close ups of the leaf or leaves and the flower if there’s one as it would be a good reference source to add to your research. We have the Scotch broom here in South Australia but it is a banned plant although you still see it on roadsides occasionally. The dyers broom though I can not discern or r cognise but I’m sure it too is around. Lovely clear yellow. Many thanks. K

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