Into the winter kitchen…dyes from compost and dried garden goods

seed stories; unearthing connections to the avocado

by Kerstin Zurbrigg

April is here and with it a call to awaken to what is greening beneath our feet.  All pervasive garlic mustard is beginning to bloom, huge swaths of lesser celandine carpet the little alleys of wilderness in our suburban biome, bitter dock has unfurled and lifted its first set of basal leaves and delicate silver mugwort is just tall enough for a first harvest.  

Lesser celandine (with origins in northern Africa, Asia and Europe) brightens the lingering winter palette in the woods; introduced in the 1800’s perhaps as an ornamental plant. Although this plant has a tendency to take over in our local woods its flowers do make a beautiful yellow dye.

There is so much more to draw our attention, including vibrant medicinals, salad greens and potential dye plants such as violets, dandelions and stinging nettle.   Many of the plants in these local woods traveled to this area in people’s pockets or in grain sacks as seeds, sometimes with intention and sometimes as accidental stowaways.  They carry stories with them as all seeds do.  Stories of our connections with plants, people and places.  Seeds are yet another beautiful source for natural color.

Garlic mustard’s four petaled blooms, a signature of the brassiceae family.

When Lisa and I met last winter, we worked with a trio of dye sources accessible as both kitchen “waste” and saved garden seeds.  Onion skins, avocado and Hopi dye sunflower seeds were all explored through a variety of processes, from direct heat to long solar soaks and with the addition of an iron modifier to deepen and draw out greyer tones of green and blue. Reflecting on the resulting colors on wool, cotton, linen and silk, it is abundantly clear that these dye resources offer such a treasure trove of possibilities even after the pot has cooked.  Their benefits are felt by our grateful gardens in their potential to enrich and feed the soil through compost.  

Avocado pits for button making…some of my first forays into working with the avocado seed.

As I begin to explore the character of avocado, there is cause for an initial celebration of the complexity and richness of hues, but the seed carries histories, both present and past, which also demand careful attention.  It begins with the unraveling of color as a means of meeting the plant.  In this process of unraveling comes something unexpected, as the exterior pigment is the complement to the interior.  The slow emergence of the trace of a family of red shades from green, as inside of the avocado, both the pit and the interior of the avocado skin carry an array of pigments: red being one, which seems to grow in depth through time and oxidation. 

Color from avocado pits deepened from a few months sitting.  Natural antimicrobial properties of the plant make slow processing a joy.

Avocado in our dye pots behaves like a tree dye, releasing color slowly, holding its integrity.  It has a natural relationship to minerals, especially iron and oxygen, and carries antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.  Not that these characteristics should be surprising, and yet the fact of this discovery came as a surprise as it is easy to detach fruit/plant from its source when we have no local context in which to experience and observe the whole plant.  In the case of the avocado, it is far too easy to detach the fruit from the tree, and even more the pit itself.  Yet, if we truly want to create visibility in how we access our foods, clothing and dyes, I recognize the need to be able to return the parts to the context of their whole.  And the avocado in its dye process, reminds us gently of its origins as part of a larger cycle and part of a larger network of relationships.  We are deeply connected to these relationships even as they seem inaccessible.  My temptation is to leave the work of unraveling aside in favor of exploring the stories underfoot in our local ecologies and yet avocado demands  focus too, and why not explore our local waste as a viable and sustainable avenue for color?

Putting the dye pot on the back burner, just for a moment (literally out on the porch in my case), I wondered about aspects of this non-local plant – although, strangely, locally available at our local food co-op where I happily purchase avocados all year round. 

What is our connection to the plant and where are they coming from today?

Some of our avocados come from farms in California although Mexico is one of the largest providers of avocados to the United States ( the region in Mexico where avocados are grown is also home to a large Monarch butterfly sanctuary which abuts the ever increasing farm lands  which sustain avocado farming).  The production of avocados has escalated at a tremendous rate due to the increase in popularity around the world, as the avocado as a food source provides us with unquestionable flexibility in culinary and nutritional aspects.  With the rise of demand and production comes the need for more growing space.  This is a part of the story of the seeds we compost and retrieve for dye.  This is the story which is slowly unraveling in our dye pot and in our color.  This array of emerging colors connects us to something far away–to forest and farm, and to fragile understandings of significant changes in relationships.

(As a child I worked with my father to collect Monarch butterfly eggs to raise in his classroom–recreating virtual meadow habitats, replenishing food sources and releasing the Monarchs after their final metamorphosis back to their original birth place on the outskirts of Chicago.  I have continued to raise Monarchs and to develop wilder places in my garden where milkweed provides the invitation for generations to return, creating and sustaining a physical connection to a longer story.  In the fall the monarchs gather in company and numbers to begin their long voyage across parts of North America south to Mexico where they winter.  My actions have a connection to places far away–the monarch is a connection I have carried. The avocado may not wander on its own wings, but it too belongs to a path which connects us to occurrences and conversations through distances, albeit somewhat obscured and seemingly indirect.)

Avocado trees in a multitude of varieties once grew wild in what is now known as Puebla, Mexico.  It is speculated that cultivation of these wilder trees began ten thousand years ago (or more) in Mexico, and Central America.  The earliest known representation of the avocado appears as a glyph in the Mayan calendar which dates back to the 5th century BCE.  The English word for avocado traces its language roots to the name, ahuacati, from the language of the Nahuati people.  In ancient indigenous cultures, the avocado carried a connection to associated attributes such as fertility, strength and health as the plant was both venerated as a sacred symbol and revered for what were seen as its physical constituents, linking it to both aspects of the human anatomy, and aspiring aphrodisiac properties.   The avocado traveled from its original lands to Europe and beyond with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century during the (devastating/unrelenting) period of the European “colonization” of the region. 

The avocado, Persea americana, is from the family Lauraceae and is close cousin to the bay laurel, the sassafras and trees in the genus cinnamomum whose inner bark is used to create the spice known as cinnamon.  The avocado is an evergreen and drops its leaves when under stress.  On average one tree can produce two hundred fruits in a year although it produces many more flowers than berries (technically, the fruit is considered a berry).  The tree carries a female and male flower which open sequentially, an adaptation or characteristic which promotes cross-pollination.  The male flower undergoes a transformational process as they open in the afternoon, close in the evening and reopen as a female flower the next morning.  The complexity of the cycle of this tree finds its expression in the giant seed, and here in my dye pot the color unravels the depth of its history in a myriad of subtle and larger resonances.  The avocado tree made its way to California in the 1800’s through intentional planting, and California remains the largest growing region in the US for the avocado.  It was in California that the Hass avocado was nurtured into being–but that is another story.

According to the World Resources Institute, the US consumption of avocados has increased by over 400% in the past twenty years.  To meet the growing demand and drawn by the lucrative field, approximately 15,000-20,000 acres of land are being deforested to create farming space specifically for avocado farming in Mexico.  Areas in southern and central Mexico in particular are deforesting to meet the demand (states of Michoacan, Jalisco and Mexico–Michoacan borders on the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a world heritage site and the wintering grounds for most of the Monarchs which migrate through Eastern North America in the warmer months).  The troubles associated with such rapid transformation of a landscape are familiar, as introducing monocropping in vital, sophisticated interconnected forest spaces has an impact on plant, animal and human communities.  Avocado trees are demanding, especially when mono–cropped, as they need more water than the trees they replaced and with less ecological diversity comes the problem of sustained nutrient depletion in the soil and the need to replenish.  In addition, less diversity creates the opening for less resistance to pests which, in turn, can lead to the practice of using chemical insecticides, which  has an effect on everything.    

What does this have to do with the avocado pit in our dye pot?  

Avocado on organza silk…

It is a vital part of the fabric of the story it tells in its connection to imprint on cloth and imprint on landscape and people.  The issues surfacing are not isolated to the avocado, as similar environmental impacts are felt by so many commodities in high demand.  To bring these issues back to the earth beneath our feet, we can experience the same depletion in our own gardens with overuse, and mini versions of mono-cropping.   Perhaps in the case of the avocado it is enough to begin to demand more information and to begin to see the context more clearly.  Perhaps it would be enough to see the avocado as a seasonal resource–to find nutritional alternatives in healthy fats and nutritive minerals.  Meanwhile, it seems fair to say we can find cause to celebrate the incredible gifts of the avocado as it continues to wander into our composts; both small scale in the home and larger scale if one were to scavenge pits and kitchen from restaurant waste.

Colors from avocado pits on cotton, silk, linen and wool from a vat created in January and left to sit for two to three months.  Fabrics were dyed overnight in a cool dye vat.

A recipe for an avocado vat…

Gather cleaned pits and skins from avocados.  You can freeze or dry materials until you have a good amount for a dye pot.  A few cups of materials should be enough for a saturated color on about 8 ounces of wool.  For lighter tones use less dye stuff in proportion to your fiber.  Using a general rule-of-thumb, weigh your dye materials and use a ratio of 1:1 dye stuff to fibers in weight for lighter shades of salmon pink, beige and apricot and upward to 2-10 times the weight for darker, rusty red tones.

Place pits and skins in a pot with enough water to allow them to move freely.   You can pre-soak the avocados to soften them enough to quarter them before extracting the color, although this step is not necessary it may provide more color in your vat.

Cook the avocado material at a low simmer for 30-45 minutes.  Remove the dye stuff and add sufficient water to the pot to allow your fibers to move freely.  

Note:  As a variation to this simple method of color release, I have worked an extraction of avocado for up to a week, watching the color deepen.  You can also leave the liquid to oxidize for a few days which also seems to darken the hue.

Another option: put aside the liquid from the first extraction, refill your pot with water and already processed dye stuff and repeat the process of gently simmering to see if there is more pigment to release.  Remove the dye stuff and combine the two extractions before proceeding with the directions that follow.

Allow your dye liquid to cool slightly after extracting (enough so that you can put your hand in the water comfortably).  

Presoak your mordanted fibers before entering them into the dye pot. 

Note: avocado dye does well without a mordant as it is rich in tannins, though if you are concerned about longevity and stability of your color you may want to use a mordant.

Slowly raise the heat to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit for wool, a bit higher for bast and seed fibers and a little lower for silk.  Hold the fibers at the desired temperature for 30-45 minutes and allow the fiber to sit in the liquid until cool.  You can leave the fibers overnight as long as they are fully submerged, although with fabrics it is sometimes best to remove and rinse shortly after the pot cools to avoid uneven distribution of color.  As with all natural dyes, the variation of color is part of the beauty, so embrace the nuances if they appear!

Avocado pits releasing color with heat and over time…

Avocado skins and pits are both extremely rich in tannins and react strongly with iron to create a variety of gray tones on fibers.  Each avocado pit carries its own alchemy, and brings a unique tone to the materials and this variation is represented in the examples below.  These nuances are especially visible in the use of an iron as a post-dye bath modifier as the subtle tones of reds, peach and pink fade to green and blue grays.

Farm yarns from Flying Goat Farm dyed with avocado skins at high heat.  From the left, iron modifier, no mordant and alum mordanted.

Below is a little portfolio of some of the colors which came from our dye gathering at the Flying Goat Farm studio.  We separated our avocado skins and pits and with each we had a high heat pot and a solar, long soak pot.  Each of the four variables were also dipped in an iron post-mordant bath.  We worked with a variety of fibers, wool yarns from Lisa’s farm, handspun yarn from within the Chesapeake Fibershed and fabrics of wool, silk, cotton and linen from further afield.


Alum mordanted fabrics in the left column (from the top: cotton, linen, habotai silk, raw silk, wool felt).  Photo on the left shows a high heat dye process with avocado pits, and the right is a four day solar soak with avocado skin dye.  It is hard to generalize as the variation in colors exists in all processes and has more to do with the unique constituents in each avocado.  It is clear that a slow, solar extraction can produce rich pinks and apricots.  Silk seems to carry pinks and apricots readily in this low/no heat process.

Avocado pits first four on the left and avocado skins on the right.  The variation is created through the use of an alum mordant (left on each pair and heat versus solar 4-day extraction 3-4 and 7-8 processed with high heat).

High heat alum and symplocos mordanted yarns.  Gray from iron, homespun two toned wool picks up peach on the lighter shades.

Iron modified fabric after a four day solar extraction.


Avocado pit dyed fabrics from a high heat process and an iron modifier.

A variety of grays from four day solar process and high heat dye process….


Make, Thrift, Mend, Katrina Rodabaugh

Botanical Inks; Plant-to-Print Dyes, Techniques and Projects, Babs Behan

Natural Color, Sasha Duerr

In addition, please see the Chesapeake Fibershed natural dye resources.

Leaving the avocado vat to sit for some months brought rich hues to silk organza and subtle shades of pink and peach to mohair and wool yarns (from Flying Goat Farm).