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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU studies native dye plants as alternative crop for small-scale growers

ALCALDE, N.M. - For centuries, Native American and Spanish weavers dyed wool an array of colors using parts of native plants. Each weaver knew where to find the plants to harvest for the desired colors.

Blanchard of Youngsville looks at a coreopsis plant she is growing for a study being conducted by New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde to promote the production of dye plants as alternative crops for small-scale growers. (Photo by Jane Moorman)

"The weaver would go out and find the plants growing wild, and harvest the blossoms, leaves or root to make their dyes," said Katy Blanchard of New Mexico Fiber Artisans.
With the renaissance in natural textiles and fiber art that has arisen in part from sensitivity to harsh chemicals and dyes used in commercial textiles, a demand has developed for natural dyes.

"Today, those working in natural textiles have no time or access to forage in the wild for the plants," Blanchard said. "Most of the dye materials we buy come from outside of the United States - from South America and Europe. And many are hard to get."

Agricultural researchers at New Mexico State University see the need for additional dye material sources as an opportunity for small-scale growers.

"We have been looking at a number of alternative crops," said Charles A. Martin, agricultural specialist at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. "We have been working with medicinal herbs and culinary herbs and spices, so it just seems natural to expand into dye plants. Many of the plants that are medicinal herbs may also be used for creating natural dyes."

Blanchard, a medicinal herb producer for 30 years and fiber artist for 50 years, said it's an easy transition from herbs to dye production.

"The fact that most traditional dye plants are also medicinals is fascinating and exciting," said Blanchard, owner of Otra Banda Herb Farm in Youngsville, a town in Rio Arriba County northwest of Espanola. "People interested in growing these types of plants are always looking for another niche. So when this study was proposed I was excited."

The NMSU research center is completing the first year of the study funded with a $20,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant.

"We are developing ways to cultivate wild species of dye plants to create new crops," said Del Jimenez, NMSU agriculture specialist, who is the project leader. "We are hoping to re-awaken an interest in overlooked species of native plants that otherwise might be thought of as weeds."

Joining Blanchard as growers are Becky Thorp of SunStar Herb Farm in Cerrillos, Luz Hernandez of Las Cruces, and test plots at the Alcalde center.

The growers attempted to raise 100 linear feet of the selected native dye plants. They were required to grow cota, Hopi dye sunflower, tansy and weld, plus four other species of their own choice for the particular growing conditions of their area. Other plants being grown include woad, madder, coreopsis, cosmos, yellow yarrow, holly hocks, black-eyed Susans, safflower, marigold, alkanet and Mexican sunflower.

Hopi dye sunflowers produce a dark gray or black color. Tansy, a naturalized European plant that is part of the New Mexico landscape in pastures and along acequias, produces a light yellow color. The flower of weld, originally from northern Europe and Ireland, when harvested in the spring produces a yellowish green color.

Cota, one of the native dye plants in great demand in the New Mexico area, according to Martin, produces a golden yellow color from its blossom petals. "Cota is a dryland plant that needs little water once it is established," Martin said. "It's been an important traditional dye plant."

Blanchard is interested in establishing the non-native madder plant, because of the red dye obtained from the roots.

"Madder was the source of the dye used to make the British military uniforms, which gave them the name Red Coats during the American Revolution," she said. "It is hard to find other sources for such a brilliant red."

Because the dye comes from the plant's roots, Martin said the growers will need to wait until they have a large enough stand of the plant before they harvest a portion of the plant. "We're recommending that they wait three years before their first harvest," he said.

Martin says the most promising of the plants are cota and woad. The dried woad leaves produce a blue dye.

"If a grower just raised cota and woad, they would be able to produce material that could produce several colors," Martin said. "That might be enough for a second revenue source for the grower."

While cota thrives in the wild, the research growers had difficulty establishing it in their gardens.

"When we transplanted it directly from the wild to the garden during the same day, it took hold and grew," said Martin. "However, the steps we took to prevent the transmission of unwanted weeds, and delay in planting caused our growers to have difficulty with the plant."

Establishing the plant in a cultivated environment is just one aspect of the study. The second part of the study is to determine the marketability of the dye material to the local natural textile enterprises in New Mexico.

While the growers are determining the yield levels from their test plots, students, under the direction of Connie Falk, professor of agricultural economics and business at NMSU, are conducting marketing surveys and assessments, and contacting local and national buyers to make a preliminary assessment of marketing opportunities and outlets.

When the students' portion is completed, they will have aided in establishing production quotas and price ranges, relayed quality requirements to growers and helped growers develop a consistent set of production cost records.