Safflower: A 4,000 Year-old Herb for Man…..and for Birds

October2019 HOM SafflowerBy Maryann Readal

This month’s Herb Society of America Herb of the Month, safflower, (Carthamus tinctorius), has had many uses throughout its long history. Use of safflower dates back to the ancient Egyptians who used the flowers for dyeing cloth a brilliant red color. Garlands of safflower flowers were found in the tomb of King Tut, and cloth found in the tomb is believed to have been dyed with safflower flowers. It is interesting that in the dyeing process, both yellow and red dyes can be achieved by using the same batch of safflower petals. The flowers are also used to color cosmetics and a variety of food products.

Safflower has been called “poor man’s saffron” and “bastard saffron” because the dried petals resemble the real saffron (Crocus sativus). While it may give your paella a nice yellow color and be a cheaper alternative to using the real thing, you may be sacrificing taste by not using the real saffron. Safflower is used in Middle Eastern cuisines and was used as a saffron substitute by Spanish colonists in the new world. The tender shoots of safflower can be eaten as a salad,  and the seeds can be eaten raw or toasted.  According to the American Heart Association, safflower oil is a healthy choice for cooking. It has a high smoke point.

Safflower seed is pressed to produce cooking oil, margarine, and salad dressings. The seed oil is also used in paints and varnishes because it does not yellow with age. The leftover product from pressing the seed for oil is used in livestock feed.

safflower seedsIf you are a bird lover, you will probably recognize safflower seed as an ingredient in some birdseed. If you grow safflower in your garden, your garden will attract a variety of song birds, including chickadees, finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, mourning doves and cardinals, who love the safflower seeds. Safflower seeds are oblong shaped and a bit bitter, making them not attractive to bird-feeder bullies like grackles, starlings, and squirrels.

In the past, safflower tea was used to reduce fevers. It was also used externally to soothe bruises, wounds, and painful joints. It has been used as a laxative, though the effectiveness of this use has been questioned by researchers. When rubbed into the scalp and into the nail bed, the oil stimulates hair and nail growth.

The plant requires a long, hot, dry growing season, and full sun. It is grown from seed and can reach three feet in the garden. However, Christine Moore, Horticulturist at the National Herb Garden reports that safflower only grows to six inches and is short-lived at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC.

Safflower’s  red, yellow, or orange flowers bloom mid-summer to fall. It is a thistle-like annual plant with leaves that are toothed with small spines and pointed at the tip. The fresh or dried flowers are very pretty in arrangements. If allowed to go to seed, safflower will reseed itself, giving you plants the following year and also a food source for the birds.

For more information, a beautiful computer wallpaper, and recipes using safflower, visit the Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.


Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.

Dye Easter Eggs with Culinary Materials

By  Susan Liechty, HSA President

Easter eggsRemember the fizzy tablets you dropped in the vinegar to dye those vibrantly colored Easter eggs?  Try something new this year. Dye those eggs with all natural products found in your garden or kitchen.  This is a fun project with interesting results; and the kids will love to experiment with the different items.  The environmental issues aside, you won’t be using artificial dye to transform the eggs into beautiful masterpieces.

The process works as follows:

Hard boil your white eggs (white eggs have a truer dye color). Allow to completely cool and dry.  Next, line up several wide-mouthed empty Mason jars or bowls to fill with all the different colors.  If you use the quart size, you can fit several eggs in one jar.

In a saucepan boil water and place your selected material in the water.  Allow to steep for 10-15 minutes.  Remove from the heat once you’ve reached your desired color and let cool.

Strain out the material, pour into your mason jar and add one tablespoon white vinegar per cup of liquid.  Prepare all colors and line up your jars.  Place your egg(s) in the jar and put in the refrigerator until the color you want has been achieved.  Carefully dry the eggs, put a small amount of oil on the egg and polish with a paper towel.

The results are beautiful and much different than the old standby colors.

Natural materials to try include:

  • Purple cabbage leaves – pink
  • Red onion skins – lavender or red
  • Yellow onion skins – orange or rusty red
  • Coffee grounds – brown
  • Black tea – brown
  • Cayenne pepper – brown
  • Turmeric – yellow
  • Red Zinger tea bags – lavender
  • Beets (diced) – pink
  • Spinach or carrot tops – green
  • Grape Juice – lavender
  • Frozen blueberries – pink
  • Orange peels – light yellow
  • Strong brewed coffee – light brown
  • Cranberries – pink

Remember to store finished eggs in the refrigerator until ready to eat.


The blog for The Herb Society of America is written by members, staff and guest authors, to promote herb appreciation from cultivation and use to learning and research. It supports the Herb Society’s goals to protect botanical heritage, steward scientific diversity and promote personal enjoyment. Membership is open to individuals and businesses.

What herb materials are you using to dye eggs?

Book Interview: A Garden to Dye For

Book Interview: A Garden to Dye For

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

A-Garden-to-Dye-for-Cover-small-300x300 Author Chris McLaughlin shows readers how to use botanicals to dye fiber and fabric in her book A Garden to Dye For (St. Lynn’s Press, 2014, $17.95). Her palette includes the obvious and the obscure. Indigo and madder root are well documented. But, did you know the properties of pokeberry, mint, bee balm, purple basil, marjoram, tansy? Check out Chris’s book and learn to coax color from nature.

 The book itself is small enough to tuck into a purse for reading on long journeys or in busy waiting rooms. And, it’s full of garden layouts and step-by-step instructions illustrated by lush pictures.

We recently caught up with Chris for an interview about her all-natural, organic options for dying fiber and fabric.

Garden to Dye For authorHow did you get interested in using plants for dye?

As a lifetime gardener I was aware that some plants could be used as natural dyes, but for years the only project I had ever used them for was Easter Eggs. Once I become involved with hand-spinning fiber, I rediscovered botanical dyes — this time using natural fibers such as mohair, silk, and cotton.

How do you use dyeing in your life?

I mostly use botanicals to dye the yarns that I handspin. One of my favorite uses is to make artisan silk scarves and play silks for young children.

 What’s your favorite color? Your favorite herb?  

I don’t truly have a favorite color nor herb. However, it’s really exciting to watch the purples come out of the lichen dye pot. Also marigolds are usually within reach for almost everybody and so easy to use. That’s my go-to much of the time. I was surprised to find how much I love the walnut dye. It’s the richest brown ever.

 What results have you had? 

 My results are often consistent with what I set out to achieve. However, if they are not, then I consider it a learning moment. I also experiment with botanical materials collected at different times of the years to see what results come from them. I’ve never had so much fun with experimentation.

 Will people fail and move on? Can they fix things? 

If you’re trying to achieve a specific color and it turns out differently than you’ve heard it “should” then you might have to adjust the pH of the bath by adding something alkaline such as baking soda or acidic such as vinegar. So, in that sense, it can be fixed it altered.

If I have dyed something already and can’t alter the dyebath, then I simply make a new one or dye over it.

What should everyone remember to do?

Have patience. Many times people assume that their dyebath has failed” to produce a certain color. When the truth us that if they have more patience and slow down, it often shows up.

 What pointers/tips would you offer dyers?

The best piece of advice I can offer is to try dyeing with several plant materials and various textiles. I find that cotton has the hardest time taking natural dyes and that can be discouraging if that is the first (and only) thing that you try dyeing. If you want results immediately, go for wool or silk the first time around.

Also, if you are getting various natural dye “recipes” — try all of them. See what works for you and what you enjoy best. And don’t forget to write everything down! You think you’ll remember what you used to achieve a certain color…but you honestly won’t.