Blue Elderberry Dye (Sambucus Nigra spp. Caerulea)
Blue elderberry, also known as Mexican elderberry, is one the native elderberries here in California. Its range extends from Baja California up into Oregon, and it's an important food source for birds and insects such as the elderberry beetle.
Blue elderberry is used for food by humans as well, the berries are mildly toxic when fresh, but heating destroys the compounds and makes their many health benefits available. There are tons of amazing resources about using elderberry to make tonics and syrups, but today I want to talk about using elderberry for something a bit different!
Elderberry makes a beautiful dye and ink in a range of tones from purple/pink to blue/gray and even green. The reason for this range of colors is in a compound called anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is a pigment found in many berries, and other red, blue, and purple foods. Anthocyanin gives these plants their rich colors, but it is also very pH sensitive which means that the color will shift depending on if the pigment is exposed to an acidic or alkaline environment. Because of this dyes that contain anthocyanin can be tricky to use and many dyers, especially those who make garments, choose not to use them due to their unreliability. I love to experiment and find working with elderberries as a dye and ink always yields interesting results.
Last year I dyed two batches of samples with elderberry, one in July at the height of the season and one in September at the very end of the season. Both of these tests were gently heated, and the results were a strong lilac in the July samples (Top row of samples in photo below), and a paler, more dusty mauve for the September samples (Bottom row).
This year I did one batch in July at the height of the season, and did not use any heat in the extraction process. I’ve found from working with other dyes that contain anthocyanin, and particularly with berries, that heat tends to dull the color. This year I also added some wood beads and was surprised at how well the wood took the dye. Time will tell if the dye will stay!
I washed the berries and cut off the large stems and then used a potato masher to smash the berries until they released their juice. I added just enough water to cover the plant material and let it sit overnight.
In the morning I smashed the berries again let sit for a few hours and then strained the mixture through cotton gauze.
I then added my samples and let them sit in the brew for about 24 hours at room temperature. The colors are very bright at this stage but fade to a duller color when finished.
I also dyed a batch with the dye modified with iron. I added a ¼ tsp ferrous sulfate to the cold bath and dyed a second set of samples. These samples came out more lavender, blue, and gray.
I’ve heard from other dyers that elderberry isn’t lightfast, but so far I’ve had pretty good luck with it. A lovely follower on Instagram pointed out that Elderberries contain tannins which can act as extra mordant, fixing the color to the fiber even more, so that may explain why it is more light fast than other anthocyanin rich dyes like red cabbage. Modifying with iron, which then binds to the tannins in the berries may help even more with light and colorfastness. Scroll down to see the finished samples, and more details on the fabric and mordant choices.
When I’m done with my dye bath I save a small amount in a bottle with a bit of alcohol and a few cloves to prevent mold growth. I use it as an ink on watercolor paper and enjoy its color changing qualities quite a bit. You could also make a lake from the remaining pigment in the dye bath, however I haven’t tried it specifically with elderberry yet. If you give it a shot let me know how it goes!
And if you’re interested in using elderberry for medicinal purposes check out handmade apothecary’s great video for some great tips on foraging and processing.