A patch of yellow, red, and orange marigolds at Cornell University

In the Hill’s Natural Dye Garden, A Rainbow of Color Is in Bloom

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By Lindsay Lennon

On a late summer stroll around the Hill, you may happen upon a small, vibrantly colored garden. Tucked away in a courtyard between the Human Ecology Building and Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, it’s resplendent with blooms including purple dahlias, towering golden sunflowers, and bands of fiery red, orange, and yellow marigolds.

This modest-but-mighty plot is the Cornell Natural Dye Garden: a living classroom and harvestable resource of organic colors used by students in textile and fiber science.

Planted in spring 2015, the garden was conceived by Denise Green ’07, an associate professor of human centered design.

She was inspired to create it after teaching Color and Surface Design of Textiles, a course focused on dyes typically used by the textile industry, which has long been dominated by synthetics.

“Our students need to learn that,” notes Green. “But I thought: what about also looking to the past, to learn about potentially more sustainable approaches?”

Green went all in on the subject, including establishing the garden, which started in a planter hanging off a balcony on Human Ecology’s terrace.

A woman standing in front of a row of tall sunflowers wearing a blue and pink dress.
The full-grown sunflowers dwarf the garden’s founder. (Provided)

Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign—and numerous plants provided by the Cornell Botanic Gardens—the plot took root in its current home in 2016.

From the beginning, students have worked in the garden alongside Green—from planting in late spring to harvesting throughout the summer and fall and then processing the plants to tap their enchanting hues.

When they started experimenting, Green says, she and her students were struck not only by the richness of the colors, but their whimsical unpredictability.

“It’s kind of like doing tie-dye—you know what you might get, but it can surprise you, and magical things can happen,” Green says. “The inconsistencies can be really beautiful, and there are these unexpected, serendipitous moments.”

One of Green’s former students has even launched a business built around natural dyeing techniques.

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Ithaca native Blossom Schmitt ’17 spent a decade as a local flower farmer before enrolling at CALS’ School of Integrative Plant Science to study sustainable agriculture.

She took Green’s fiber science studio class, where she relished the playfully creative nature of organic dyeing.

A woman wearing a blue and yellow cape naturally dyed with indigo and onion
A cape dyed with indigo, turmeric, and madder makes a dramatic statement. (Simon Wheeler)

“It opened up my world,” says Schmitt. “It was this explosion of everything I love about science, and everything I love about being creative. It used both sides of my brain.”

After graduation, Schmitt moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where she runs Florawear, a boutique apparel company offering naturally dyed items.

She started by upcycling white garments from thrift stores, and eventually began sourcing her own fabrics, creating high-end pieces like dresses, nightgowns, and yoga gear.

As Green explains: not all materials readily lend themselves to natural dyes, whose utility is highly dependent on the textile to which they’re applied.

Fibers like silk and wool are a natural dyer’s dream; cotton makes a great canvas, but has issues with long-term colorfastness.

To that end, Green and colleagues are currently researching the longevity of naturally dyed items after they’ve been laundered and exposed to light dozens or hundreds of times.

And given the finnicky Northeast climate—and, of course, wildlife—cultivating the dye garden is an ongoing lesson in trial-and-error.

You know what you might get, but it can surprise you, and magical things can happen.

Prof. Denise Green ’07

Some plants deliver reliably—like Hopi Dye sunflowers, reaching upwards of 12 feet in height and harvested for their purplish-black seeds, and marigolds, which flourish right up to autumn’s first frost.

On the other end of the hardiness spectrum, there’s only one breed of indigo plant—which is widely utilized as a dye source across the apparel industry—that stands a chance in the Ithaca region; Green has grown it with varying degrees of success.

But she notes that beyond nurturing specific varieties, the garden project has another aim: to get people to think twice about plants that otherwise might be written off as weeds.

For instance, celandine poppy—widely considered a weed in Northeastern home gardens—has orangey yellow roots with natural dye properties.

A few years ago, then-graduate student Kelsie Doty, PhD ’20—now a fashion and textiles professor at Kansas State University—spearheaded a partnership with Cornell Dining to salvage food waste like onion skins, avocado pits, and coffee grounds that can be used in textile coloration and dyeing.

Says Green: “There are so many sources of dye we literally just throw away.”

Top: An array of the garden’s marigolds (Sreang Hok / Cornell University).

Published August 18, 2023


  1. Carol Newman

    BRAVA!!! Friends here (NW Oregon) are heavily into indigo (and more), changing the culture.

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