Students of Ethnobotany: Dyeing with Oregon Grape

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Mahonia aquifolium (Photo credit Emma J.)

This colorful edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the creative Emma J.

Mahonia aquifolium is commonly known as Oregon Grape (though it really isn’t a grape at all!), or sometimes as “barberry.” These large shrubs have pointed leaves resembling holly leaves, greyish brown bark, and berries that are a dark purple hue.
While aquifolium derives its name from the Latin acus meaning ‘needle’ and folium meaning ‘leaf’ (Davis Landscape Architecture, 2011), it is actually the stems and roots of the plant which are the most useful.

Medicinally, the root of the plant is often used as a substitute for Goldenseal, a plant native to the East coast that is known for a wide range of medicinal uses and most commonly used as a digestive aide or antimicrobial tincture. Mahonia aquifolium may also act as an immune system booster by encouraging phagocytosis(Oregon Grape, 2011).

To me, one of its most interesting uses is as a natural dye stuff of a brilliant yellow hue. Many of the first peoples of North America used Mahonia aquifolium as one of their primary dyeing agents. The Thompson peoples boiled down the roots and used the resulting yellow hued water as dye for baskets and garments (Royal BC Museum, 2010).

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My first attempt at dyeing with natural dyes- a tie-dye creation with Mahonia aquifolium, beetroot, and blackberries. (Photo credit Emma J.)

Here is a rough outline to follow if you have some old mustard stained shirts to revamp! When dyeing with the stem, the first layer can be peeled off to expose the bright yellow pigment underneath. The peeled stems are then boiled for a couple of hours until they appear quite blanched. After soaking the garment to be dyed (silk or wool work the best) for several hours, it is immersed into the dyebath and boiled for two hours.

Mahonia aquifolium is a substantive dye, and so no great difference is seen between the finished products with or without the use of a mordant (Kierstead, 1950).The active ingredient in the Mahonia aquifolium dye process is berberine, which has a strong yellow colour and fluoresces under ultraviolet light.

Natural dyes such as Mahonia are gaining popularity as awareness increases regarding both the negative environmental effects and possible health risks of the petrochemical sources of sythetic dyes (Patel, 2011) . Natural dyes from vegetative sources offer a sustainable, renewable option that can also offer opportunities for rural economic development (Kadolph, 2005). So round up those ragged old whites and transform them!

References:

BuyReagents. (2004). Berberine. From http://www.buyreagents.com/berberine.html
Davis Landscape Architecture. (2011 йил 11-December). Plant of the Week: aquifolium. From Davis Landscape Architecture: http://davisla.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/plant-of-the-week-ilex-aquifolium-argentea-marginata/

Kadolph, S. (2005). Natural Dyes. (V. Steele, Ed.) Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, 1, 388-390.

Kierstead, S. P. (1950). Natural Dyes. Boston: Bruce Humphries Inc.
Oregon Grape. (2011). Retrieved from Mountain Rose Herbs: http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/learn/oregon_graperoot.php

Patel, B. (2011). Natural Dyeing. Woodhead Publishing.
Royal BC Museum. (2010). Tall Oregon-Grape (Berberis aquifolium). From http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Natural_History/Plants.aspx?id=289

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2 thoughts on “Students of Ethnobotany: Dyeing with Oregon Grape

  1. Pingback: Nibbles: Manioc gastronomy, Wilting revolution, Turrialba cheese, Conservation and poverty, Beans breeding, Dye plants, Plant Cuttings, Amazon fires, Balm, African silver bullets, Heritage food, Potato politics

  2. Pingback: Nibbles: Manioc gastronomy, Wilting revolution, Turrialba cheese, Conservation and poverty, Beans breeding, Dye plants, Plant Cuttings, Amazon fires, Balm, African silver bullets, Heritage food, Potato politics, Native seed meet

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