Native Dye Plants of the United States

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Native Dye Plants of the United States

The first to use native dye plants in the United States were the Native Americans. Their culture was totally dependent on what the land produced. This is reflected in the wealth of information Native Americans possessed about useful plants, from medicinal to ceremonial and dye plants. This is reflected in the types of houses they built and the names of places (often after the plants that grew there). Early European colonists foolishly ignored the wisdom of the Native Americans and modern Americans are not much wiser. Americans need to learn about the plants and animals in our own country and how they can be useful to mankind. Instead of bringing non-adapted species of Europe to North America we need to learn what native adapted species can fulfill our needs and wants (Gilmore 1977). For example, we spend thousands of dollars feeding, sheltering, and caring for European cattle when we have native bovines, bison which are naturally adapted to the climate and environment. Melvin Randolph Gilmore sums this idea up well in the following quote:

"The country can not be wholly made over and adjusted to a people of foreign habits and tastes. There are large tracts of land in America whose bounty is wasted because the plants which can be grown on them are not acceptable to our people."(Gilmore 1977).

Native Americans learned about the plants in their environment through general trial and error and through communication with other tribes (Gilmore 1977). Some of the dyes used by Native Americans of the Missouri River region are discussed below. Far more plants were used for medicines, shelter, and tools than dyes. Various green dyes came from pond scum probably Protococcus, Ulothrix, Chaetophora, and Spirogyra. Another green dye that was used for bows and arrows came from lamb's quarter, Chenopodium album. Yellow dyes came from a variety of places including smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, roots, the lichens Parmelia borreri and Usnea barbata, and young cottonwood (Populus sargentii) leaf buds collected in early spring; this particular yellow dye was used for coloring arrow feathers and quills. An orange dye also used as a feather dye was boiled out of the vines of dodder (Cuscuta paradoxa). Red dyes came from pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) and were used to paint horses and people. The familiar bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was also used as a skin dye or to dye articles that were boiled with the roots.
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