Pokeweed (also known as ‘pokeberry’) is a large, common plant – regarded as a weed – and originating from North and South America.
Some species however can also be found in New Zealand and parts of Indonesia.
It is easily grown and will withstand quite poor soil conditions (as most weeds do). It will happily tolerate both full sun and partial shade, which makes it perfect for many gardens. Be warned that given it is considered a pest in most North American states, you should check with local authorities before planting.
It may be easiest to forage for wild pokeberry plants near you or simply buy pokeberry dye online, to avoid causing problems in your own garden.
If you are still determined to grow your own, then plant the seeds in Spring. The berries (which are the part of the plant used for dyeing), can be harvested around September and October.
Keep the seeds moist until seedlings appear. If you know someone with poke berries in their yard – or if you come across some growing wild – you can easily propagate by digging up the roots and replanting them. They are extremely vigorous and will quickly sprout! These plants will grow up to 10 ft (3 meters) tall, so plenty of room is needed!
Pokeberry will produce heads of dark purple berries on beautiful bright magenta stems.
The berries are pressed to extract the juice. When mixed with water and mordant this becomes your dye!
Pokeberry dye can produce a beautiful dark purple to magenta color, but if no mordant is used the color will quickly fade with washing. Vinegar is useful to help set the dye from the poke weed plant, but even then the color will eventually fade with time to a reddish brown.
Although it has been used medicinally for thousands of years, pokeweed is still considered poisonous. The plant has to be boiled three times before consuming, to remove toxins. A such, ensure you use pots that are set aside exclusively for dyeing and will not be used for food preparation.
Poke berries can be sun dried and stored in airtight containers for use later in the year. Or, you can freeze them – but be sure to label them well, so that they are not eaten!
Creating Pokeberry Dye Using the Berries
The berries of the Poke Weed are what is used to produce the dye.
In fact, the term ‘dye’ is used loosely in this instance as the poke berry produces a ‘stain’ rather than a dye. As such it will react like a stain from any other berry, in that it will change color over time and not wash well.
However there are some measures we can take to help slow down or eliminate that process.
Vinegar works quite well as a fixative for pokeweed dye to retain the beautiful purples and reds that can be attained through varying methods of dyeing.
Although the color will not wash out of your yarn, it is not lightfast and will fade with time (like most natural dyes). Your beautiful rich purples and reds will eventually become mauves and pinks!
Getting Purples and Mauves with Pokeweed Dye
The best method we have found to produce a beautiful array of purples is to cold soak the yarn or fibre in the dye bath.
The longer the yarn is left to soak, the deeper the color. Once you have reached the color density you are after, gently remove the yarn or fibre.
To fix the color, immerse it in a pot of cool water to which 1 cup of white vinegar has been added.
Getting Pinks and Mauves from Pokeweed Dye
Heating your pokeberry dye bath will produce some lovely red and pink colors.
For pale pinks, the yarn or fibre only need stay in the dye bath until the desired color is reached.
If you are after deeper reds, you will need to leave the yarn in the pokeberry dye pot for longer. However, remember not to bring it to boiling point – as too much heat will spoil your color and may felt your yarn too!
Keep your dye pot on the lowest simmer you can to avoid browns.