Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Egg hunts are a classic Easter activity and we used to dye ours with chemical tablets bought at the supermarket with my girls. One year, we made our own natural dyes with cupboard and kitchen items and realized that it was quite fun (onion and tea, who knew?). Making anything yourself is always more fun, isn’t it? This year, we’re going wild (literally) and will be making Easter natural dyes with foraged plants that we find in the wild.
If this sounds like a cool craft activity with kids, it’s also very economical as foraged plants are free for you to find in nature. Part treasure hunt, part nature science, using foraged plants to dye Easter eggs is a fun way to convince kids to go outside, take a walk, forage wild plants and find out their true colors. Of course, they won’t be bright colors or even a wide range of colors, like with chemical dyes, but you will achieve lovely natural results with plants you’ve picked yourself.
Here are the most common natural dyes you can make in your kitchen with foraged wild plants.
Dying with stinging nettles guarantees vibrant green eggs. The good news is, stinging nettles are never hard to find. They’re also a delicious food source and when cooked and pureed, can turn any cake bright green. To harvest stinging nettles, pack heavy duty gloves and a plastic bag and look for disturbed ground such as trail sides, stream edges, public parks or abandoned lots.
When you have a pound (in weight), bring them home and cook the nettles as indicated above in water until they boil. Bring the heat down to a simmer and after five minutes, switch off the stove and let the water steep until it cools down. This nettle tea is the base for an egg dye. To dye the eggs, strain the water and cook the eggs directly in the nettle tea. Nettle tea is a very strong dye so you should not need vinegar.
Let cool and dry before handling.
Dandelion flowers yield a pastel yellow dye that looks perfect for spring and kids can find dandelion flowers just about anywhere in parks. As long as you avoid pesticide and dog areas, your dandelions should be in “edible” shape. To make a dandelion dye, follow the basic recipe above and do not hesitate to steep longer to get a more intense (but still pastel) yellow.
If there are enough dandelion plants to forage, you can try to collect a few roots as well as dandelion root produces a red natural dye. If you feel extra gourmet, you can also pick some dandelion leaves to add to your salads.
Wild fennel is a common wild plant and is easily identifiable by kids as it virtually smells like liquorice. Wild fennel dye will be light green and the kitchen will be quite fragrant when it simmers. To make wild fennel dye, you can use leaves, stems and flowers (though they might not be out yet in the spring) and the basic dye recipe above. Since wild fennel produces a very light color, you may want to experiment with and without vinegar and see if it changes the intensity of the dye.
In San Francisco, my girls used to love eating sour grass flowers in the spring. Tasting like sour plums, these bright yellow flowers are addictive and perfectly edible, though not in great numbers. Think of them as nature’s sour patch. Little did I know that sour grass flowers also make a neon yellow dye and that if you boil the whole plant, you may even obtain an orange dye.
To make sour grass dye, follow the basic recipe above and boil your eggs in the resulting sour grass dye. To get the best results, boil your eggs and leave them to steep in the dye so that the color is more intense. The upside of foraging for oxalis is that you can also collect a few leaves to add to your salads or cook as a traditional Polish Easter soup.
Yes, pine cones! Why not? They’re common enough and make natural dyes. Of course, pine cones come from a variety of trees and depending on your local pine cone-bearing trees, pine cone dye colors will vary from light honey to orange red. This will be a science experiment for your kids as they will only find out the dye color at the end. With pine cones, I would suggest not eating the dyed eggs because pine cone dye is not edible (in fact, it’s probably toxic). However, it’s kind of fun to use pine cones this way.
Note that this dye takes patience as you have to boil the pine cones during 2 to 3 hours to get to a good color. It’s also better if you use a cheap pot to make this dye, as the pine cones will leach sap and scrubbing the pot will be part of the experience. The good news is, you can also use this dye to dye textiles at home. Pine cone tie dye, anyone?
Producing a light beige to grey or teal blue dye, acorns are easy to find for kids if you live in oak country. Since acorns mature in the summer and fall between September and December, kids might have a harder time finding them in the spring but in dense oak areas, there will still be some on the ground. The reason why acorns are such a good natural dye is that they are full of tannin and for that matter, this dye doesn’t require any fixative such as vinegar or salt. However, like pine cones, it doesn’t produce an edible dye so don’t be tempted to eat these eggs.
Since acorns come from many different oak trees, you will find out what color results from your acorn dye at the end.
To make acorn dye, it’s best if you pre-soak the acorns as this will make softer for grinding. Using a mixer, grind them into a rough powder. Simmer this powder in water for an hour or longer until the dye color is to your liking. Strain and use the resulting acorn dye to color your eggs.
I’m throwing this out there because depending on where you live, you might be able to forage some tree barks and use them to make natural dyes. Here are some pointers as to what you can expect.
Have fun experimenting on foraged plants natural dyes for Easter!