Extracting dyes from plants

Crush plants to see the dye colours that are released, and learn about Indigenous plant dyes. Optional: use plant dye(s) to make a greeting card.
Science content
Biology: Indigenous People's sustainable use of Living Things (K, 2, 3)
Chemistry: Indigenous People’s Materials/Separation methods (1, 6)
  • worksheet (attached)
  • plants to crush: oregon grape stem, dogwood stem, green grass/leaves, yellow and red flowers, blueberries
    Optional for greeting card:
  • green fern, or other chosen plant
  • cloth squares
  • tape
  • hammer/rock
  • wooden board to hammer on
  • newspaper to protect board or table
  • cards with window cut out
  • glue

Crush the plants on the worksheet, to show what colour dyes they contain. The colour may change depending on the chemistry of the paper, and some colours will fade with time as light changes their chemistry.

Crushing to extract the juice from a plant is one of the methods used in plant preparation. Other Indigenous methods for preparing medicinal plants (from J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2012; 8:7):

Preparation method Decription
Paste Fresh plant parts are crushed to obtain a paste used externally or internally.
Poltice Plant parts are crushed to obtain a soft moist mass generally used externally to treat swellings, pain, inflamed or infected body parts.
Juice Obtained by squeezing or crushing plant parts and filtering through cloth. Sometimes requires addition of freshwater or other liquid for dilution.
Powder Obtained by crushing dried plant parts.
Chewing Fresh plant parts are chewed without prior transformation.
Infusion Plant parts are plunged in either hot or cold water for several minutes. If hot water is used infusion is taken as a tea. More than one plant species can be used in conjunction.
Decoction Plant parts are boiled in water for several minutes and the extract is used. More than one plant species can be used in conjunction.

Optional art project to make a card:
Lay pieces of fern on a piece of the cloth in a design you like.
Tape the ferns to the cloth. Make sure they are completely covered with tape.
Use the hammer, or a rock, to pound the ferns onto the cloth. Smash the ferns completely, so their colour transfers to the cloth.
Peel the tape and ferns off the cloth.
Open the card and put a few drops of glue around the edge of the window.
Lay your cloth fern design over the window, so that it is held in place by the glue.
A beautiful card made form a natural dye!

Green leaf chemistry:
The green colour in the fern leaves is called chlorophyll. In living plants, chlorophyll traps the sun's energy for plants to grow.
Indigenous groups have been making dyes from plants for thousands of years. The leaves, petals, bark and seeds of plants have all been used to make different dye colours.


Pink rhododendron petals also work well, and their colour lasts for a while.

Other BC native plant dye colours:…

Painting with BC invasive plants:
and their plant colour guide:…

Indigenous separation methods from the Australian school curriculum:

Grades taught
Gr K
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 3
Gr 4
Gr 5
Gr 6