PLANT DYES | Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

SAM_0413It’s June and it feels like we are in the heat of summer already! All around our small town, Red-berried Elder trees are bending with the weight of their abundant berries. Early summer is the perfect time to harvest these berries for their dye. Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), also known as Scarlet Elder or Bunchberry Elder is not a choice edible like it’s cousin the Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerula). I have read conflicting reports regarding the edibility of the red berries so I have not tried them myself. I did however read that both the red and blue elderberries were used as a dye source by the First Nations people.


We gathered a small basket-full of the ripe berry clusters and used them fresh. I boiled, simmered and mashed the berries till they lost their color  to the water – and turned a dull yellow. Remember to strain the berries (this is true for all berry dyes) before dyeing as it is cumbersome to remove them from the fiber after; also this makes the fiber sticky 😦


I dyed a small sample of cotton (scoured, then treated with tannic acid and alum) and handmade paper. I also did a full color range on wool and silk. By this I mean I experimented with mordants like alum, copper & iron + pH modification of neutral, acidic and basic.

As you can see below, both cotton and paper took on a very pale pink but the dye was very uneven. Red elderberry is not the best choice to use for pink for plant fibers.


Here is a rather disappointing full color range on wool yarn; again, I would not use these berries for dyeing wool fibers either.


And here are the more promising results on handwoven mulberry silk swatches:


Left set was treated with alum and right set was not. A lovely pale pink can be achieved with a straight dye (no mordants, no pH modification) while a small range of greens with Iron and Copper mordants. Considering the abundance of this berry around here, it’s an excellent sustainable option for pink dye on silk projects.

Eri Silk embroidery thread & handwoven Mulberry Silk swatch dyed with Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)



3 thoughts on “PLANT DYES | Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

  1. Your statement that you “don’t need a mordant” because you achieved the same colours with and without a mordant does not sound right to me. A mordant is the thing that will extend the colourfastness of the dye. And alum is a mordant that alters the colour of the dyes the least. So, the same colours would be expected; it is how long they last through washes that the mordant determines. That’s how I understand it, anyway. Nice work on the colour variations. They’re pretty.

    Liked by 1 person

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