(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 12, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but pleasebe aware that authorsof previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I made dyes from every plant that might contain a dye. Usually only the fresh blooms of certain flowers easily made a yellow dye. If dyes were made from blossoms, the task was easy. If they were made from roots, I usually turned the making into a disastrous mess. The problem with that also was that dyes are better when they are first made, when they are still warm from the stove. During the winter there were no fresh flowers, and if I had a wild hankering to dye something yellow, there were no yellow daylilies in bloom. I explained my predicament to my great Aunt Bett, because I had planned on dyeing my white longsleeved blouse that had a yellow stain from who knows what right down the front. I told her I truly needed a yellow dye.
One thing led to another and Aunt Bett dug around in her dried roots looking for one she called bitter dock. I had told her that it would have to be a good strong bright golden yellow dye, and she told me that bitter dock roots would produce the very color I wanted. She asked me what kind of stain I had on my blouse, and I told her that since it was yellow, I only knew that it couldn't be a berry stain. And besides, I was into my yellow artistic period at that time, having outgrown pink and blue, so I seriously wanted a yellow blouse anyway. When you have yellow socks and yellow ribbons, the next thing you need is a yellow blouse, isn't it? Picasso was not the only one who went through colorful phases.
I knew that bitter dock (Rumex obtusifolius) grew wild in the mountains, to the point that it never was allowed to get a good hold on our yard because of its invasiveness. It grows even now in empty meadows and along roadsides. It is a plant that was native to Europe, brought to us by well meaning pioneers who came from across the ocean. Now we can find it all the way across and from top to bottom of the United States. It has quite a history as a medicinal herb, and part of this history came from Aunt Bett, and some of it I found in research. Bitter dock is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows 2 to 5 feet tall. It has an erect greenish stem, often with red streaks. Its leaves, can be up to 14 inches long, and will have a blunt or heart shaped base. They get smaller as they get close to the top of the stem.
As early as classical antiquity it was used for a laxative, and centuries later in Anglo Saxon England, physicians used a mixture of the leaves, other herbs, ale and holy water to cure those believed to have been made ill with "elf sickness", a term for a spell cast by witches. In the late 17th century, a tea made from bitter dock was used to alleviate toothache when taken orally and to cure itch when used as a wash. It was also believed that bitter dock wash cleaned up skin blemishes. In either case, the roots and the leaves were the source of its medicine. Tiny greenish flowers appear from June through September, they occur in dense clusters on tall stalks at the top of the plant. The small one seeded fruit is enclosed in three winglike and deeply toothed valves. They aren't the kind of fruit enclosed seed that sticks to you like a burr, but look very similar.
Scientific studies have validated the traditional prescription of bitter dock tea as a laxative. The young leaves may be eaten fresh as a salad or cooked like spinach. The root makes the yellow dye, and that is what Aunt Bett was giving me. I was curious about the plant, because it was one of those that I caught its stem at the base of the blooms, and gently pulled my fingers along the stem. The blooms or seeds would pop off in my hand, and it was just a pasttime habit for me, similar to picking the seed ball of a dandelion and blowing the seeds from here to yon. I know, I had a lot of strange habits.
I can only remember that Aunt Bett used bitter dock for making a salve, and I always felt it was something magical when she made potions and lotions using only the cooked plant juices mixed with lard or beeswax to solidify the liquid results. Without a doubt she would add crushed mint to the parts of the plant that she boiled, so that the final mixture would smell like mint. I also vaguely remember that she made something that she added rose petals to, for no reason except to give it a scent. I wish I could remember more little details like that.
That brings me to today, and my habits have changed just a tiny bit. I no longer guard the bitter dock, because I know it is easy to purchase a yellow dye, but when I have time in the summer to play around with plants, I can always make a yellow dye from flowers. I don't see bitter dock very much here in western KY, though it does grow in abundance in the Land Between the Lakes. I think that like me, most people consider it an invasive weed, and my yard is not big enough to allow invaders.
As I think of the hundreds of plants that were such a part of my life all those years ago, I find myself wishing I could have a nice little plot where I could easily grow some of them, simply for the memories. Most of them, like bitter dock, are not really attractive, and can be terribly invasive. But oh my, they sure do bring back some beautiful memories.
Source for verification: http://wwwherbs2000.com/herbs/herbs_bitter_dock.htm
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to the photographers: kennedyh, lmelling, and lunavox for the use of their photos.