The History of Color: Himalayan Rhubarb and Yellow Onions

8 Apr

Himalayan Rhubarb:   a traditional natural dye from the Himalayan  mountains between India and Bhutan.  The plant grows in altitudes from 3-5000 meters and yields a deep golden yellow color with an alum mordant.  Shifts in pH will create more yellow or nearly brick red colors.  The dye is aromatic and earthy smelling .

Color amazes me.  Amazes me for several reasons.  The least of which is simply that I often take it for granted. But my sojourn into natural dye  has opened my eyes to both the significance and history of color.  To put this into perspective, just think– this country, the United States, has a history of a few hundred years. Whereas the color yellow has roots dating back to  the caves of Lascaux where we find  a yellow horse estimated to be 17,300 years old.  To say it again, I’m amazed by color.

I’m intrigued that thousands of years ago, people discovered the value of plant stuff–both as medicine and as color sources.   And since I’m also intrigued by most things Tibetan, it’s no surprise that when I came across Himalayan Rhubarb, I was compelled to try it out.

In her classic compilation, Wild Color, Jenny Dean says that “In Himalayan regions, species of rhubarb are particularly valued for their contribution to the dye pot. In parts of Tibet and Ladakh, and among Tibetan refugees in Nepal, rhubarb root is the most common source of yellow dye, and species of rhubarb have long been sought after locally. The roots are dried, chopped up, and ground into powder before use, and give strong, fast shades of yellow, gold, and orange.”

So here:  experiments with Himalayan Rhubarb–the left is a lousy image–in real life the yellow is very rich.  And the color on the right–HR with a modified PH–in otherwords, I added washing soda to the water and this is what happened.  Can’t you see why I love this so much!

And the significance of colors in Tibet?  Yellow:  Yellow symbolizes rootedness and renunciation. Buddha Ratnasambhava is associated with yellow. The nose is represented by this color. Earth is the element that accompanies the color yellow. Yellow transforms pride into wisdom of sameness when visualized in meditation.


I had so wanted this garment to be Himalayan Rhubarb.  It’s not.  This yellow comes from onion skin.  Another powerful source for symbolizing rootedness and renunciation.


8 Responses to “The History of Color: Himalayan Rhubarb and Yellow Onions”

  1. katiebrugger April 8, 2016 at 9:39 pm #

    Can you dye with American rhubarb root?


  2. nanacathy2 April 9, 2016 at 3:22 am #

    Fascinating, the yellow looks so vibrant.


    • Patricia April 9, 2016 at 10:30 am #

      it is vibrant–glows from the inside


  3. debbie.weaver April 9, 2016 at 5:48 am #

    Fascinating, beautiful colours. I have been saving and freezing rhubarb leaves to try out when I get time. The english sort, so must give the stems and roots a go as well. I don’t use mordants but the leaves are supposed to be a mordant anyway but if anybody else tries this be aware that they are also poisonous.


    • Patricia April 9, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      thanks for this reminder, Debbie. I need to mention this if I’m going to post about natural color–that just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean we should ingest it. good point you make


  4. ravenandsparrow April 9, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Yes, rhubarb has oxalic acid, which can act as a mordant. Your experiments with changing pH are inspiring.

    I think our love affair with color arose with consciousness itself. It is powerful.


  5. Mo Crow April 9, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    the alchemy of colour


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