Which Plants Were Used to Make Natural Colours in Ancient Times?

In ancient times, people used natural sources to create vibrant and long-lasting colours that were used in everything from textiles to artwork. These natural dyes were derived from a variety of plant sources, each with its unique properties and hues.

Indigo: One of the most popular natural dyes in ancient times was indigo, which was derived from the leaves of the indigo plant. Indigo dyeing was practiced in many parts of the world, including India, China, and Central America. The dye produces a deep blue colour that is still highly prized today.

Madder: Another popular dye was madder, which was created from the roots of the madder plant. This versatile dye could produce shades ranging from pale pink to deep red and was widely used throughout Europe and Asia.

Henna: Henna is a plant-based dye commonly used for body art or mehndi. The leaves of henna plants are crushed into a paste which can be applied to skin or hair for temporary staining. It can produce shades ranging from pale orange to deep red.

Other plant-based dyes include:

  • Turmeric: A bright yellow dye derived from the root of the turmeric plant.
  • Saffron: A deep yellow-orange dye derived from the saffron crocus flower.
  • Logwood: A purple-blue-black colour derived from the heartwood of various tree species.

The Process

The process of creating natural dyes involves extracting pigments from plants and then fixing them onto fibers through a process known as mordanting. Mordants are substances that help bind the dye to fabric or other materials. Common mordants include alum, iron, tin, copper and tannin-rich substances like oak galls.


While synthetic dyes have largely replaced natural dyes in modern times due to their ease of use and consistency, the beauty and sustainability of natural plant-based colouring can still be appreciated today. The use of plant-based dyes can also be a way to support local farmers and reduce the environmental impact of the textile industry.