Bartlett on Gardening: Let’s Color Eggs! Using Vegetables and Spices For Natural Dyes

The custom of decorating eggs in spring is very ancient. Archeologists have found examples in Egypt and Mesopotamia that are 5,000 years old. The Persian new year began on the spring equinox. Eggs, a symbol of new life, fertility, and rebirth were decorated as part of the celebration. For Christians, the egg became a symbol of the resurrection. The custom spread through the Eastern Orthodox Church to Europe.

Who does not love Easter eggs? One of the joys of this custom has to be that it is a great way to entertain elementary-aged grandchildren spending spring break at Grandma’s house. Several years ago, I engaged them in coloring the eggs with natural dyes. The activity took up much of a rainy spring day as we learned the process together.

​​The grocery store is loaded with dye sources. In the produce department, pick up a red cabbage for blue, red beets for pink and onion skins, yellow for orange and red for green. Over on the spice aisle, grab paprika and turmeric. You need some white vinegar and might like to use grape juice as a source of purple. Don’t forget the eggs. You will want three or four for each color.

I like to roast the beets and use the skins for the dye, but you can use one whole beet. The outer leaves of the red cabbage have the most pigment; however, using a quarter of the head works, too. I was too shy to make friends with the associate cleaning up the onion bins, and so never had the eight skins necessary to make up a dye batch. A teabag or two will allow you to make brown eggs.

Let’s get started. You need a bowl for each color you plan to use. Coarsely chop the vegetables and place them in separate bowls. Use one tablespoon each of the turmeric for yellow and paprika for orange. Pour two cups of boiling water over the dye agent and allow it to steep for up to two hours. The turmeric will not go into solution, but it will yield usable dye in as little as 30 minutes. When you have the degree of color saturation desired, strain the vegetable based solutions, but not the spices. Add two tablespoons of white vinegar to each bowl.

Now it is time to place the eggs in the bowls. We hard-boil ours first, but you can use raw eggs. (In Italy, uncooked eggs are colored and placed in bread dough nests. The eggs cook with the dough for twenty minutes in the oven.) Refrigerate the soaking eggs. We found that maximum coloration occurred in four hours, but you can allow them to soak overnight. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and allow to dry. The intensity of the color is softer than the results with food coloring.

This method of decorating Easter eggs is as much fun for adults as it is for kids. When everyone feels some ownership of the product, everybody enjoys it more.

Master Gardener Ann Bartlett is traveling this week. She sends these Easter decoration pictures from France.

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