By Valerie Rogotzke, Master Gardener
Buckthorn trees have been legally classified as a noxious weed in Minnesota since 1999, taking over native species and damaging the local environment. While their removal can give any gardener a headache, this obnoxious invader can be transformed into something colorful and beautiful. Both the berries and the bark of buckthorn trees can be used as natural dye materials, creating a spectrum of colors from cool greens and blues to warm reds, oranges, and browns. A little know-how and a willingness to experiment can turn any buckthorn removal project into a creative endeavor.
For this project, I used wool yarn, alum, several cups of buckthorn berries, and a few other odds and ends from around the house. I began by washing the wool in a dish detergent to clean it thoroughly, then tossed it into a crockpot filled with water and around a tablespoon of alum. This process, called “mordenting,” prepares the wool to receive the colors from the natural dye materials. After an hour on the lowest setting, I removed the wool and emptied the pot. Now the dyeing began! I refilled the pot with water and added my buckthorn berries, tied up in cheesecloth on a low temperature. The dye bath looks dark purple or almost black after a few minutes. I dropped in my wool, and after a few hours on low, the yarn was a vibrant sap green. I set aside some spring green yarn and dipped some into an iron bath made from rusty nails and vinegar to make the green turn a more olive or grey tone. Finally, I rinsed all the yarn and let it dry, setting it aside to be knit up into a pair of mittens when the weather turns colder again.
Natural dye projects can involve the whole family. Children can gather plants from the garden or forest, and everyone enjoys seeing the magical transformation of a plain white canvas into something more colorful!
NOTE: Be sure to do this in a well-ventilated area, and only use crockpots or dye pots for the stove that are exclusive for dye projects. Dye pots and utensils are not food safe.