Dye Eggs Naturally with Fruits, Vegetables, Botanicals (and Children)
Am I the only one struggling with the idea that Passover and Easter are almost here? Maybe it’s because living in the Midwest the weather never quite feels like it has made a commitment to spring until June rolls around, and by then it’s really too late. Regardless of my feelings, the calendar cannot be denied. Spring, and all of its many holidays are upon us, bringing with them the shared symbol of an egg to celebrate rebirth and renewal.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has pinched a sprig or two of the parsley otherwise earmarked for the Passover meal and wrapped it around an egg, securing it with scrap of pantyhose, and hard boiling it in a pot full of onion skins to create the extra special symbol to sit in a position of honor on the Seder Plate. The result has always been a deep russet colored egg with a perfectly outlined parsley leaf, serving as an example of effective use of negative space. I have long appreciated the simple beauty of this symbol of spring; the image of fresh green growth superimposed on an egg, the ultimate representation of new beginnings.
This year as my mother was delegating holiday preparation tasks, she asked if I would like to take responsibility for the egg for the Seder Plate. I was thrilled to have this gentle nudge to explore the world of egg dyeing using natural dyes such as vegetables, fruits, and spices. I also wanted to see how else I could incorporate new botanicals in the egg imprinting process. Additionally, it seemed like a great way to get the children involved in the holiday preparation as well as provide opportunities for a multitude of discoveries about nature, seasons, color mixing, patterns, and more. I read, researched, consulted with my mother, and then pretty much did my own thing which is how I most often like to learn and create.
The first step was taking the kids on a walk in the yard. The children next door joined in too so we had six eager boys and girls looking for “fresh green things with interesting shapes.” We talked about why the plants needed to be green versus brown (so that they would bend to the shape of the eggs and not crumble); why rocks or sticks would not work for this project; and we gathered some found objects just to fill up the spaces in our empty pockets because that’s what happens when we look around outside. We also had a discussion about edible versus non-edible plants and decided that since we wanted to be able to eat the eggs in the end that it would be best to only use plants that we knew were safe to consume.
Next up in the process I raided the refrigerator. I wanted to have a whole rainbow of colors because I’m a “more is more” kind of person by nature (I’m working on that). I also didn’t want to have to go to the store because once I get excited about a project, I like to dive right in. I settled for using beets for reddish/pink, the yellow onion skins for a russet color, turmeric for yellow, chlorella for green, and a mix of frozen blackberries and grapes for purple. I then acknowledged that I really wanted blue too so I picked up a purple cabbage at the grocery store anyway. As long as I was there I grabbed some additional fresh herbs (sage, thyme, dill, and rosemary) that I thought might make pretty impressions on the eggs.
I diligently chopped up the produce as needed and put 2-3 cups of fruit or veggie matter in each pot along with a quart of water. For the chlorella and the turmeric, I went with 2 tablespoons per quart of water. I then brought the pots to a boil and lowered the flame, allowing each pot to simmer covered.
I had read a host of differing methods for the dye preparation and dyeing process. Some people hard boiled their eggs in the pot along with the coloring agent, but others suggested that such a method would not allow the colors to properly develop before the egg became horribly overcooked. Some methods instructed the dye to simmer for 30 minutes to an hour or more to allow the color to properly deepen, although others said to cook until the desired shade was reached. I read instructions to add several tablespoons of vinegar to each pot at the start when preparing their dye, whereas some added the vinegar once the dye had cooled or even brushed the vinegar directly onto the egg shell before dyeing. I decided to hard boil my eggs in water first and allow to cool in the fridge. Then, I prepared my dye to a deep dark shade, checking the colors with the kids to decide when we thought the color was ready.
When the dye was done, I strained the liquid dye into glass jars, discarding the solid material. I could have moved forward at this point, but it was getting late so I stored the covered glass jars in the fridge overnight. The next morning, I added the vinegar to the dye just before dyeing each egg.
We opted to use both brown and white eggs to add another element of mystery and discovery to the process (i.e., how would the same dye look on differently colored eggs?). Asher enjoyed making patterns with the eggs as we prepared to dye them.
Each child worked with varying levels of assistance to consider how they wanted to decorate their eggs and apply the herbs. We found that dabbing a small amount of coconut oil onto the back of the leaves helped us adhere them more securely to the cold eggs. Then I carefully wrapped each egg in a small bit of old, clean pantyhose and tied it gently to secure, a process that I found moderately challenging without disrupting our plant placement.
I will add here that if at all possible I would recommend calling each child over to this activity on his or her own to decorate eggs and then return to their play or activities when the next child takes a turn. As it was, trying to manage the enthusiasm, desires, and need for assistance of three children at once at this point in the process resulted in exactly three out of my three children bursting into tears before all was said and done, which was not part of the original plan, and of which I took no photos.
Once our eggs were ready, we placed them into glass jars of our dyes, debating about the colors that the eggs would ultimately turn (would the deep wine-colored beet dye result in darker or lighter eggs than the ruby red grape/berry dye? Would the purple/pink cabbage dye really turn the eggs blue as promised?). I tucked the jars in the fridge and checked on the eggs after several hours, opting to leave them in for longer. Many I left in the dye bath overnight and well into the next day.
Our results were a mixed bag. We all had our favorite shapes and colors and discussed what we would do differently next time. We found that the chlorella was a bust, not dyeing the eggs at all. The turmeric didn’t work much better for us, adding only the palest of yellows to our white egg. We decided to relocate it to the blue jar and overdye it. We were quite shocked to see the red grape/berry dye turn the egg a deep purple, and we loved every shade of blue that the purple cabbage dye created. We all preferred the white eggs as our canvas, and found that sturdy or single leaves with well-defined shapes made our favorite impressions (parsley, pine, dandelion, clover). We also found that soaking the eggs in the cold dye bath versus boiling them with the dye seemed to keep the dye on the surface of the egg shell, making the colors very vulnerable to rubbing off with handling. I suspect that cooking the egg in the dye bath may help fix the dye to the shell, but I’ll have to experiment with that and see. My mother’s eggs that are cooked with the onion skins have always held the dye better than mine did, hence my theory. In the end, the russet colored egg with the humble parsley leaf print is still my favorite, although that pine needle one is a close second, and I do so love the blue colors…back to “more is more” I guess.
Have you had experience dyeing eggs or other materials such as fibers with natural dyes? Please share any tips or stories in the comments. For all of those who are celebrating in the days ahead, may you have a peaceful and joyous holiday.by