Often when I think about a natural dyer’s garden, I think in terms of colors for the dye vat. Sometimes, I think in terms of garden beauty, ease of cultivation, or hardiness for my zone. But, I hadn’t thought of creating a bee friendly dyer’s garden to help save the bees, particularly the wild varieties. Many natural dyes, particularly those for yellow, are already flowers. So, I started wondering if there was a way to make a dyer’s garden that could save the bees?
The cornerstones of a dyer’s garden are the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Plants that produce these shades grow in temperate climates. However, some are annuals, some are perennials, and a handful are biannuals. For a bee friendly garden, a combination of all three types of plants gives your local bee population the best long-term food network.
Typically annuals flower mid season, perennials can flower all season, and biannuals will flower early to mid-season. This is a rough rule of thumb, as there are always exceptions to rules.
My Favorite Bee Friendly Plant:
Woad is my favorite save the bees plant. Every time I’ve let it flower, it has been swarmed by native bees, honey bees, and all types of pollinating insects. The challenge is that woad is a biannual, and it’s the first year plant that you harvest for dye. The second year plant’s only use is to produce seed, or feed bees. However, the up-to three foot tall spikes of brilliant yellow honey-smelling flowers are highly attractive to your local pollinators.
If your goal is feeding bees, keeping the plant from self-seeding, and not saving seed at all, you can play a trick on the plant. If you trim the flower stalks just as the green seeds are forming, the plant will send up more flowers. You can have flowering woad for much of the mid to late spring, using this tactic. Further, sometimes the woad plant will try to flower all season, successfully overwinter and flower again the following year. Of course, if you pull it out, it can’t. But, it has happened.
If you are saving seed from a woad plant, let the stalks get pollinated, but cut all but one or two at the “green seed” stage. Only let one or two stalks, per plant, get to full ripeness, and harvest before the seeds dry enough to easily release from the stems. This way you will have maximum flowers for your bees, and minimum danger of escaped woad.
In Regions where Woad is “Invasive:”
If you are in a region with “invasive” woad, and you’ve spotted a field full. Don’t Spray! Let the bees have fun, and then cut down the flower stalks before the seeds have passed the green stage. This will prevent the woad plant’s seed from maturing. But, the bee population still has the benefit of the flowers. However, if you don’t harvest and use the first year plants, you may have to do this many times to clear an area of “invasive” woad (or just get goats… they love it).
All My Favorite Yellows
My favorite yellow dye plants are all flowers here in temperate B.C. Plants like Yarrow, coreopsis, mullein, dyer’s chamomile, and marigolds, thrive here. One benefit of flowers is that they hold the majority of their dye potential when dry. For flowers, fresh and dry are often nearly equal. This does depend on flower, but coreopsis, dyer’s chamomile, and yarrow are good candidates for drying. You can grow a lot of flowers and dry them, without fear of losing the dye potential.
One thing you may notice, when looking at the natural dye flowers, is that they are all single layer flowers. Very few, excepting marigolds, have double or triple layers of petals. Even the marigolds, however, have very clearly defined centers. Flowers that are simple, like this, will help save the bees, because the nectar and pollen is easy for bees to access.
These, sometimes-showy flower, are a great help in creating a bee friendly garden for a second reason. They are naturally repulsive to soil nematodes, and certain insects, so they can be used to protect other plants by inter-planting. This reduces the amount of pesticides the gardener may “need” to use, protecting the bees. Marigolds help attract bees to other plants, whose flowers may not be as noticeable, increasing pollination. Less pesticide need and more fruitfulness? Sounds like a win-win for the gardener.
Most marigolds are low profile flowers, so in a flower bed dedicated to natural dyes, you would plant it near the front.
This natural yellow dye flower may also be more familiar to you as a pink, orange, white, or even red addition to your commercial bouquet. However, it is a friendly natural dye flower, and highly beneficial medicinal herb. Personally I have used Yarrow as an herb, and as a natural dye, and it’s pungent aroma is one of my favorites.
Yarrow has a higher profile, up to 18 inches. It is a mid-range grower, and a frequent self-seeder. It can also be found wild in many regions, and loves the dryer and more open wooded grasslands in my region. We’ve even found some naturally color-variant yarrow, light pink, instead of the most-common white flowered varieties.
From observation, butterflies may frequent yarrow more than bees. However, due to it’s dry-hardiness it would be a good candidate for a garden bed that was at the edge of the sprinkler system.
Lily of the Valley:
This plant is recommended in Indigo, Madder, and Marigolds for dying with. Personally, I love the smell of Lily of the Valley, and enjoy it’s springtime blossoms. However, it is not as good for cold gardens, and I have yet to have it growing fervently enough to harvest for natural dyes. Bumble bees like it, however, and it is a beautiful flower to use as a ground cover in shady and damp areas of your garden.
Save the Bee Plants:
One of my favorite plants, that is very bee friendly but less of a natural dye, is bee-balm. It’s a beautiful herb that grows a little taller than Yarrow and is loved by bees. While not a natural dye plant, it’s showy blossoms would be a great addition to any bee-focused garden. And, you can always try it for eco-printing, even if you can’t make a dye bath out of it.
There are many other flowers and plants that can provide pollen for bees, or habitat for wild bees. Madder, for example, provides cover and habitat for bees, but few and tiny flowers. The undisturbed land around madder is good for burrowing bee species too.
Back to You:
What are you planning for your natural dye garden this year? Will you be growing any of the plants I mentioned, or do you have your own favorites?
Leave a comment, I would love to hear from you.
If you would like to study further about creating bee friendly gardens you can check out “42 bee friendly garden plants,” for more garden plant ideas.