Debra Lynn Dadd
Coloring Springtime Eggs With Natural Dyes
Go directly to the natural egg dyes recipes and instructions
Spring is the time for the celebration of eggs, for, even though we are able buy eggs year-round in the supermarket, in Nature eggs are seasonal. The eggs that we eat today are mostly from domesticated birds, but for thousands of years people collected eggs from the wild for food. Before 1900, wild bird eggs were on the menu in restaurants. In the wild, birds and other animals lay eggs only during the time of year when the weather is such that the hatched babies can survive. So there are no eggs in winter, and eggs are then again plentiful with the coming of Spring.
I first became aware of the seasonality of eggs when I visited a neighbor who raises chickens. She told me that her chickens require 14 hours of sunlight to lay eggs and that commercial eggs in the wintertime come from chickens raised under electric lights. Hens naturally have an ongoing urge to lay eggs from spring to fall, when they lose their feathers. Then they wait through the winter until 14 hours of sunlight return in the spring. Of course, depending on where in the world these chickens are, the actual date the 14 hours or more of sunlight begins and ends is different from place to place. Even though eggs are available in the supermarket all year long, in the scheme of Nature, our bodies really are not designed to eat them every day.
She also told me that hens start laying eggs at about six months of age, which in hen-years is equivalent to our human adolescence. And they lay at a rate that is considered "productive" by the egg industry for about a year. As the hen gets older, she produces fewer and fewer eggs, but they are larger.
Celebrating spring with eggs
Though Easter, as a holiday, is the Christian celebration of Christ's new life after crucifixion, its origin and customs are much older. Since the beginning of our species, humankind has celebrated the new life of Spring, particularly in parts of the world where winters are cold and food is scarce.
Indeed, the very word for the season -- Spring -- describes the action of Nature at this time. The origin of "spring" goes back to the Old High German springan, which means to jump and perhaps to the Greek sperchesthai, which means to hasten. Spring certainly is the time when plant seedlings and baby animals hasten to jump out into existence. A spring is a source of water issuing from the ground, a coiled wire that jumps back into it's original size after being depressed, an act or an instance of leaping up or forward, a quality of resilience. To spring is to come into being, to leap or jump up suddenly.
And so Spring is about newness, and in particular, about new life leaping forth once again, making the egg--which is the embodiment of new life itself--the perfect symbol of Spring.
Though we may today celebrate the egg as a symbol of rebirth in forms ranging from the most popular--chocolate--to the most expensive--encrusted with diamonds--using the actual egg itself for our spring celebrations restores this symbol to it's original form in Nature.
The tradition of coloring eggs
The tradition of coloring eggs for springtime celebrations has deep roots in ancient times. It might have begun with the gathering of wild eggs of different natural colors in the spring. Although many eggs are naturally white, eggs of almost every color of the rainbow are known. As animals were domesticated and more white chicken eggs were eaten, it may have then become the custom to dye the white chicken eggs to look like the colored eggs of wild birds.
Colored eggs were given as gifts by the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Chinese at their spring festivals, and used by early Christians as a symbol of Jesus' Resurrection. As early as the Middle Ages, eggs were colored and given as gifts at the Christian celebration. After being forbidden during the solemn fast of Lent, eggs were reintroduced on Easter Sunday, both as part of the feasting and as gifts for family, friends, and servants.
Though nowadays most people color their eggs with egg kits that contain dyes made from petrochemicals, for millennia eggs were colored with plant materials found in Nature. Barks, roots, and leaves from many plants produce beautiful natural dyes.
Coloring eggs provides an opportunity to experiment with plant materials that grow in your region -- perhaps even in your own backyard. If coloring eggs is an activity you enjoy, consider keeping a scrapbook from year to year that documents the dyestuff used and the colors it produced. Books on natural dyes for fabrics can give you clues for dyes for eggs.
In addition to coloring eggs with natural colors, you can decorate your eggs to look like bird eggs. Eggshells are often intricately marked with blotches, scrawls, streaks or speckles, generally concentrated in a ring around the large end of the egg. You can make eggs with your own "bird" speckles, or make eggs that celebrate the eggs of actual birds that live in your area.
This is a good opportunity to learn about your local birds and what their eggs look like. For some pictures of bird eggs, visit the The Provincial Museum of Alberta, which has an on-line field guide with over 300 egg images and the birds they become. In addition, they have a fascinating explanation about how and why eggs have different shapes, colors, and speckle patterns.
How to color eggs with natural dyestuffs
Here's how to color eggs with some plant-based dyes you probably already have in your kitchen. I have been delighted with the results of the colors I have tried and my friends have been thrilled to receive them as springtime gifts. The colors are very unusual -- gentle, earthy, soft, and very vibrant, without being harsh like the artificial dyes -- and when I tell people the colors come from plant dyes, they always want to know the origin of each color.
NOTE: When coloring eggs with natural dyestuffs, the eggs are cooked and colored at the same time, in contrast to coloring with using an artificial dye kit, which requires cooking the eggs prior to coloring.
Red - Pink -- Recommended but I haven't yet tried: lots of red onion skins, cranberry juice, or frozen raspberries.
- Put raw, white-shelled, organically-raised eggs in a single layer in a pan. Cover with cold water.
- Add a little more than a teaspoon of white vinegar.
- Add the natural dyestuff for the color you want your eggs to be. (The more eggs you are dying at a time, the more dye you will need to use, and the more dye you use, the darker the color will be.)
- Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Quickly check the eggs for color by removing them from the dye liquid with a slotted spoon.
If the color is as desired, pour off the hot dye liquid and rinse them immediately in cold water to stop the eggs from cooking. Continue to change the water until it stays cool in the pot because the eggs are no longer releasing heat. Drain and allow eggs to cool in the refrigerator.
If you wish a deeper color, strain the hot dye liquid into a container, then rinse the eggs immediately in cold water to stop them from cooking. Continue to change the water until it stays cool in the pot because the eggs are no longer releasing heat. Drain the last of the cold water, then cover the eggs with the strained dye liquid. Add more water if necessary so that the eggs are completely covered. Put into the refrigerator immediately and keep eggs in the refrigerator until the desired shade is achieved. Overnight is good. Longer than about twelve hours some of the colors just get muddier instead of deeper, and the lighter shades are more vibrant.
- Remove the dyestuff you used to color the eggs.
Orange -- Yellow onion skins will dye to a deep orange right in the dye pot. Use the skins of two medium onions for four eggs.
Brown -- Red beet skins make a beautiful mahogany brown. Roast fresh beets at 350 degrees until soft (about one to two hours, depending on size). Peel off the skin and about 1/8" of the beet. Reserve beets for eating (they are delicious roasted!) and add the skins to the dye pot. Use about one egg-size beet per egg. Allow to soak overnight. Grape juice produces a beautiful sparkling tan (I think the sparkles are from the high sugar content of the grape juice--this is one of my favorites!) Also recommended but I haven't yet tried: coffee.
Yellow -- Saffron makes a bright yellow when eggs are soaked overnight. Use about 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads for four eggs. Recommended but I haven't yet tried: tumeric or cumin, orange or lemon peels, or celery seed.
Green -- Recommended but I haven't yet tried: spinach. Carrot tops and peels from Yellow Delicious apples produced a yellow-green.
Blue -- Red cabbage leaves make the most incredible robin's-egg blue. Use about a quarter of a medium head of cabbage, chopped, for four eggs. After the 15 minutes of boiling, the eggs are still almost white, but after soaking the eggs in the dye liquid for about six hours, they turn very blue. Frozen blueberries produce a kind of steel-grey-blue right in the cooking pot. Use 1 cup blueberries for four eggs.
Deep Purple -- Red wine makes a beautiful burgundy color right in the cooking pot. Cover the eggs completely with undiluted red wine, and add the vinegar right to the wine. Recommended but I haven't yet tried: hibiscus tea.
Tips for successful results:
- Use filtered or distilled water. Chlorine and other chemicals will work against the dye, making it less intense. Buy distilled water or use your own filtered water.
- For deeper colors, use more dyestuff or let the eggs soak longer.
- For even coverage, cook eggs in a pot large enough to hold enough water and dyestuff to completely cover the eggs, even after some of the liquid has evaporated during the 15 minute of boiling.
- Again, for even coverage, if you continue to soak the eggs in the refrigerator after cooking, make sure the eggs are completely covered with the dye liquid.
- Blot the eggs dry or allow them to air dry, as for some colors the dye will rub off while still wet. On the other hand, if you wish to make a white pattern on the egg, you can rub off some of the dye for some colors immediately after cooking.
- Make sure eggs of different colors are completely dry before piling them up in a bowl together, as wet dye from one egg can transfer to another.
Cold-dipped Egg Dyes
A few years ago, Martha Stewart recommended some recipes for natural easter egg dyes that are no longer on her website. Since I can't link to them, here they are.
Martha suggests making dyes separately, then soaking boiled eggs for various periods of time to achieve the desired colors. Eggs can be soaked in more than one dye to acheive desired colors.
Select your dyestuff and place it in a pot, using the amounts given below.
Add 1 quart of water and 2 tablespoons white vinegar to the pot. If more water is needed to cover ingredients, add more vinegar proportionally. Bring to a boil and lower then lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the dye into a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Red-cabbage dye: 4 cups chopped
- Turmeric (a spice) dye: 3 tablespoons
- Yellow onion-skin dye: 4 cups (skins of about 12 onions)
- Beet dye: 4 cups chopped
- Coffee dye: 1 quart strong black
For more natural egg dye ideas, see
- Pale Yellow: Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes.
- Orange: Soak eggs in onion-skin dye for 30 minutes.
- Light Brown: Soak eggs in black coffee dye for 30 minutes.
- Light pink: Soak eggs in beet dye for 30 minutes.
- Light blue: Soak eggs in cabbage dye for 30 minutes.
- Royal blue: Soak eggs in cabbage dye overnight.
- Lavender: Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes, then cabbage dye for 30 minutes.
- Chartreuse: Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes, then beet dye for 5 seconds.
- Salmon: Soak eggs in turmeric dye for 30 minutes, then beet dye for 30 minutes.
>Au naturel: Color your eggs the old-fashioned way
Includes tips for making fancy patterns on your eggs with natural dyestuffs.
> Natural Dyes for Easter Eggs
Tips for special effects and natural dyestuffs from your garden.
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