What We Call Things

While in Oaxaca, Mexico, a friend gave me a small bag of dried dye material. She had obtained it from dyers in the Teotitlan Valley. It was identified locally as “Mexican chamomile”. It was very aromatic and easy to believe that it was a type of chamomile, possibly related to dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), also known as know as golden marguerite.

I wanted to compare this “Mexican chamomile” with the chamomile I had at home. I had dried chamomile flowers from Maiwa and some whole plants from the end of the season in my garden. Both of them were Anthemis tinctoria.

Dry and fresh dye materials

I dyed mordanted wool fabric with all three of these “chamomiles” and achieved very different results. Both of the known chamomile dyes produced in a soft, predictable yellow color while the Mexican “chamomile” produced in a much deeper, richer tone. When I completed lightfast tests on the three samples, the Mexican chamomile actually deepened in hue, which led me to believe that it contained a tannin. I guessed that it might not actually be chamomile.

Fresh chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), Maiwa dried chamomile flowers (Anthemis tinctoria), Mexican chamomile (Tagetes lucida)
Lightfastness tests. Right side was exposed to direct sun for 3+ weeks.

After reporting these results to the friend who had given me the dye, she told me the plant had another local name: “pericon”. Once I knew this, it was easy to identify the plant in both Tintes y tintoreros de América by Ana Roquero and Plantes Tintóreas de Guatemala by Olga Reiche. Both of these are excellent dye books, written in Spanish.

The dye plant in question was Tagetes lucida, a type of marigold. The entire plant is used for dyeing, which explains the presence of tannin in the dye. The whole plant is likely to contain tannins while the flowers alone would not.

Tagetes lucida,  Wikipedia photo

I have located sources of seed for this plant. The seed companies also refer to it as “Mexican tarragon”, “sweet smelling marigold”, and “Mexican mint marigold”. The leaves are a savory herb and can be used as a substitute for tarragon.

I bring all this up to emphasize the importance of using Latin names for our dye plants. Local names are only useful to local people. I understand that there is a great deal of emphasis on the use of local plants for dyeing but as we travel and meet dyers from other places it becomes important to talk about our process in a common, international language.

While in Mexico I took a workshop on plant taxonomy with Alejandro de Ávila at the Botanical Gardens in Oaxaca. I marvel at the incredible system of plant names that can be understood around the world and encourage dyers to get into the habit of using the Latin names for plants.

I will grow Tagetes lucida (or “Mexican chamomile”, or “pericon” or Mexican tarragon” or “sweet smelling marigold” or “Mexican mint marigold”) in my garden this year and think about the Teotitlan dyers who gather it wild and use in their weavings.

Jacobo and Maria Luisa Mendoza, Teotitlan weavers and natural dyers in their home studio, with Rocio Mena Gutierrez


16 thoughts on “What We Call Things

  1. This is a very excitng find! Thank you! I live near the SC border south of you and have a warmer climate. I will try to grow this as well! Please tell me what mordant you used. Thank you for sharing. Meg

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more re. using the correct botanical names! It’s lovely to know the local pet names but essential to discover the correct name for future use.

  3. I agree with you about using the botanical names, for me it would be very difficult to know what plants people from other countries use otherwise:)
    I have never used Tagates lucida, but I will have to give it a try. I think it’s seeds are available also here in Finland. I see that you have gotten quite good lightfastness with it, would you say it is better than with ordinary Tagates patula? I wasn’t very satisfied with the lightfastness of T.patula.

    1. When I have used other varieties of Tagetes, I typically used only the flowers, harvested all during the growing season. I agree that the lightfastness presents some problems. I’m guessing there are tannins and other things in the whole plant, which is what the Mexican dyer’s typically use. I will do some experimenting this summer.

  4. As both a florist and a natural dyer, Latin is SO important. I find it sad that most don’t/won’t bother to learn the proper names. (Most of the floral wholesalers these days don’t even get that….)

  5. Catharine, last year I discovered this plant in a community garden project in Meridian, MS( called “Love & Peas Community Garden). I sourced some and tested. It is a beautiful dye. I started seed in my greenhouse this Year and have these plants now growing in my dye garden as welll as among the plants in my vegetable garden. Our local and renoun horticulturist, Gail Barton, introduced me to this plant…. and tells me that she propogates it Year to Year with cuttings versus seed. Good luck with yours.
    I’ve also transplanted some wild Greater Coreopsis from our hill to my dye garden where it is doing well. This plant was the only color available to my Mom for dyeing Easter eggs as a child. She introduced me to it back in the 1970s when, as a weaver then, I dyed all the yarns that I was weaving with.
    My weld is doing amazingly well in my Mississippi dye garden. I am curious to see if it will bloom this year or if I will need to let it winter over for a harvest next year. I did cut a few leaves to test for printing with an alum post mordant and obtained a beautiful soft green. Testing yet to be done.
    Many thanks to you !!! Winki

    1. Winki, Let me know how the weld does in your climate. When did you plant it? I want to know how to advise folks who live south of me as to the best way to grow it. I’ve got a very healthy crop here this year.

      1. Catharine, I actually started this in my greenhouse in February. I have always had good luck transplanting but was ever so careful after you told us about the long tap root and difficulty doing it this way. I very carefully transplanted to the garden the week before Easter.

  6. Will try the leaves as have a 4′ foot plant called Mex. Marigold that recieved as a cutting from
    a community garden, It seems to have large flowers and smell strongly but kinda stinky.
    The flowers make a very storng yellow. Am wondering if its related but another species.
    TY for your nice pictures and info, very inspiring

    1. Lots of yellow flowers have strong flavonoids that will produce color. The best way to find out what you have would be to identify the plant by its botanical name. There is an app called iNaturalist that is excellent at helping to identify specific plants.

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