Dye plants

This royal factory’s garden is home to dye plants originating from different parts of the world, from the Mediterranean Basin to America, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia and even some plants introduced and naturalised in Australia.

Plants used to obtain natural dyes used to give colour to fabrics going back to the time of our ancestors, by many civilizations all over the world.

From yellow chamomile used to dye rugs in Turkey, or the rose madder which is used to dye cotton the famous “Turkish red”, or dyer’s woad, known as “blue gold” by the powerful European industrialists of the Middle Ages.

They are all historically influential plants that have played a role in the cultural development of different peoples throughout time.

The garden serves as an additional cultural interest in the history of the Royal Tapestry Factory.

Anthemis tinctoria L. (Asteraceae)

Yellow chamomile

Mediterranean basin and the Middle East Habitat: ruderal / generally cultivated Parts used: flower (principally) and leaf Dying principals: flavonoids

Traditionally used for dyeing rugs in Anatolia (Turkey)

Coreopsis tinctoria Nutt. (Asteraceae)

Black-eyed Susan vine

America Habitat: ruderal / farmland / generally used for decoration Parts used: flower (primarily) and leaf Dying principals: flavonoids
According to the great chronicler of the Indias, Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (Peru, 17th century), the flower of the Coreopsis tinctoria, called pauau in the Quechua language, was much sought after by the dyers at the service of the Incas.
Genista tinctoria L. (Legumes)

Dyers’ greenweed

Habitat: wetlands / pastures

Parts used: flowery stems

Dying principals: flavonoids

Appears in the first ever printed book on dyeing: Plictho de l’Arte de Tentori (Venice, 1548)
Helianthus annuus L. (Asteraceae)


Mexico and Central America

Habitat: generally cultivated

Parts used: flower and seeds (of the blue-seed variety)

Dying principals: flavonoids

The blue seeds are used in Mexico to dye laces or small pieces that do not need to be long lasting.
Iris pseudacorus L. (Iridaceae)

Yellow flag, yellow iris


Habitat: water courses / ponds / swampy regions

Part used: rhizome

Dying principals: tannins

Traditionally used on the Isle of Harris (Scotland) to dye the cloth known as Harris tweed.
Persicaria tinctoria (Aiton) H. Gross (Polygonaceae)

Asian Indigo

South China and South-East Asia

Habitat: today grown extensively in Japan, Europe and the United States

Useful part: leaf

Dying principles: indican → indigo

According to the legend, the Chinese emperor Huangdi (circa 2697-2597 BC) decreed that the upper part of the clothing worn by Chinese people should be blue like the sky.
Rubia tinctorum L. (Rubiaceae)

Rose madder

Mediterranean basin / Middle East / introduced and naturalised in Europe since ancient times.

Habitat: all kinds of soils, including in cracks in the walls of churches / today widely grown in the Netherlands.

Useful part: roots

Dying principals:  anthraquinones

It was used in the Mediterranean basin from biblical times and its spread reached northern Europea and used by man since approximately 8800 BC, the date of the discovery of the remains of Åsa Haraldsdottir of Agder of Norway, at whose burial site, alongside weaving tools, were found remains of dyer’s rocket and rose madder. This root was used to obtain the famous “Turkish red” dye for cotton, a technological advance that was not known in Europe until the mid-18th century.
Reseda luteola L. (Resedaceae)

Dyer's rocket

Europe / Mediterranean Basin, /North Africa

Habitat: calcareous / rocky soils / grown again in Europe.

Useful part: leaves, stalks and flowers

Dying principals: flavonoids

Used in Europe, probably since ancient times. Through analysis, its use has been documented in archaeological Egyptian textiles between 1st and 10th centuries AD.
Tagetes spp. (Asteraceae)

Aztec marigold

Mexico and Central America

Habitat: cultivated

Parts used: flower principally) and leaf

Dying principles: carotenoids

In addition to its use as a dye, the petals of the flower are used in poultry farming, mixed with feed for hens for the production of eggs with yolks with a mode intense yellow colour.
Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench (Poaceae)

Red Sorghum

Africa / introduced in China, India, South-east Asia and America

Habitat: today cultivated

Parts used: covers of the stalk

Dying principles: anthocyanins, anines

This dye has been identified in archaeological fabrics found in the tombs of Bandiagara in Mali ( 11th – 16th centuries AD)
Cosmos sulphureus Cav. (Asteraceae)

Xochipali (Nahuatl language)

México / naturalised across the rest of the American continent

Habitat: ruderal / crop fields / pine-oak forests /cultivated

Parts used: flower and leaf

Colouring principles: flavonoids

Traditionally used in popular dyeing in Mexico and the Andean region.
Isatis tinctoria L. (Cruciferae)

Dyer's woad / glastum


Habitat: ruderal / prefers basic soils / sometimes on siliceous sandy soils, 500 to 1800 m in height / cultivated today in France, England and Germany

Parts used: leaves

Dying principles: isatan A & B + indican → indigo

Dyer’s woad was grown all over Europe from the Middle Ages. It was considered a valuable asset among the most powerful traders, earning it the nickname “blue gold”. Its name in Spanish, pastel, meaning cake, comes from the way it was prepared for conservation and marketing, in the form of kneaded balls of the fermented herb.
Arbutus unedo L. (Ericaceae)

Strawberry tree

Europe / Mediterranean basin / North Africa

Habitat: cultivated for decorative purposes

Parts used: roots

Colouring principles: tannins

In Libya, the roots are used to dye leathers red.
Berberis aquifolium Pursh (Berberidaceae) / Mahonia aquifolium (Pursh) Nutt.

Oregon grape

North America / naturalised in Europe

Habitat: undergrowth / grown for decorative purposes

Parts used: wood and roots

Colouring principles:  berberine and other alkaloids

Used by the Navajo Indians and other Indigenous communities in the United States to dye things as different as wool for rugs and blankets, hard fibres for basketwork and porcupine spines.
Malus domestica Borkh. (Rosaceae)

Apple Tree

Asia Central / introduced to Europe by the Romans

Habitat: cultivated

Parts used: bark of young branches

Colouring principles: flavonoids

Mentioned in all European dyeing books of the 18th century as dye for wood and silk.
Punica granatum L. (Lythraceae)


Far and Middle East / naturalised throughout the Mediterranean region

Habitat: cultivated

Parts used: skin of the fruit

Colouring principles: tannins

Appears on a neo-Babylonian tablet conserved at the British Museum, in cuneiform characters as a recipe for dyeing using pomegranate.
Rhamnus spp. (Rhamnaceae)

Persian berry

Central and southern Europe

Habitat: calcareous / rocky soils

Parts used: bark of stalk / berries

Colouring principles: anthraquinones

The beautiful yellow colour the berries of these plants provide, sadly, has some discriminatory connotations. In the 9th century, by order Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, Jews and Christians who lived in Muslim countries were forced to always wear a yellow hat or turban to distinguish them from the rest of the population. In response, the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) imposed that Jews and Saracens living in Christian countries had to wear a distinctive yellow cap. This imposition remained in force for Jews in the Avignon papal states right up to the French Revolution.
Rhus coriaria L. (Anacardiaceae)

Sicilian sumac

Middle East / Mediterranean basin, especially Sicily

Habitat: naturalised in different terrains where it was cultivated historically

Parts used: leaf

Colouring principles: tannins

Its principal use has historically been as a tanning agent. There are recipes for dyeing black with sumac in the first book ever printed on the subject of dyeing. Plictho de l’Arte de Tentori, published in Venice in 1548.
Quercus spp. + Andricus infectorius Hartig / Cynips spp.

Red-pea gall

Europa / America / Western Asia

Habitat: mountainous forest

Parts used: pathological excrescences, known as gall, produced on the young branches of oaks in response the oak gall wasp insects laying their eggs.

Colouring principles: tannins

Used in Europe and in Mediterranean countries since ancient times for dyeing black and producing writing ink. The galls of Aleppo in Syria, today sadly an area annihilated by war, are mentioned by classical authors like Pliny and Dioscorides as those most sought after by dyers from the ancient world.
Juglans regia L. (Juglandaceae)

Common walnut

Middle East / acclimatised in Asia and America

Habitat: cultivated in Europe since ancient times

Parts used:  fruit mesocarp

Colouring principles: naphthoquinones, flavonoids y tannins

In the General Instructions for wool dyeing promoted by France in the 17th century, was classified as belonging to Greater or Good Dye.
Quercus coccifera L. + Kermes vermilio Planchon (Kermesidae)

Kermes oak + Kermes dye

Mediterranean region

Habitat: the female insect is the host on the Mediterranean Kermes oak

Parts used: dried body of the female insect

Dying principles : anthraquinones

The most sumptuous red colour that existed in ancient times was extracted from this cicada-like insect. That from the large kermes oaks of the Levant coast of the Iberian Peninsula was especially sought after; so much so that Roman Hispania paid tributes to Rome with the dye from the Levant coast. As a memory of that great wealth, there are still two mountain ranges in Spain that carry the name “Sierra de la Grana”, one in the province of Alicante and one in Córdoba.
Opuntia spp. (Cactaceae) + Cochineal

Nopal cactus and American Cochineal


Habitat: arid and semi-arid areas / the female of the parasitic insect of the stalks of the Opuntia.
Parts used: dried body of the female insects

Dying principles: anthraquinones

After the discovery of America, American cochineal went on to replace the Kermes oak as the main source of crimson dye. It’s cultivation in Mexico and Central American in colonial times earned the Crown and Spanish sums surpassed only by those from gold and silver. After the independence of the colonies, the nopal cactus and its host were acclimatised on the Canary Islands, which became the first producers of Cochineal this side of the Atlantic. Today the most important producer is Peru.