Fungi for Dye Research


Natural dyes have been used throughout human history and can be a more environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic dyes for small-scale projects, businesses, and slow craft. Synthetic dyes were introduced for use in mass-production instead of natural dyes due to several factors including their light fastness (anti-fading) capabilities as most natural dyes fade with time and exposure to light. The downfall of synthetics is that they have a negative impact on the environment and health of people working with them. Finding less toxic dye sources is important as we use dyes for many aspects of the built environment. 

Unlike its botanical relatives, research pertaining to the potential of fungi as a dye source is relatively new. Some fungi have already proven to have superior lightfastness as compared to plants. However, the search for better dye sources is not commonly funded research nor is mycology in general. 


 A budding amateur mycologist armed with a copy of "Rainbow Beneath My Feet", a book on dye producing fungi species by Alan and Arelene Bessett, I first began searching for dye fungi several years ago. I learned how to conduct dye experiments while getting my BFA in fibers at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I ran my first few experiments for the Wild Seed Field Museum. I was thrilled to see that indeed a few of the fungi I collected produced color. In 2020, I shared these finding through a small display on natural dyes at the Missouri Botanical Garden Library. 

My curiosity was sparked! I began a deeper search, looking for anything I could find. I especially had difficulty finding information on Midwestern species. During the Spring of 2022, I complied a literature review as part of my graduate studies. I found little published in scientific literature on dye producing fungi though I did discover several popular media sources. Including the books of Miriam Rice, hailed as the grandmother of this field. The first published book on fungi for dye in 1974 with "Let's Try Mushrooms for Color". I also found an official species list of dye fungi provided by the North American Mycological Assocation. Through my research I quickly learned that there wasn't a species list on dye producing fungi for the Midwest. The bulk of what was published was from the Pacific Northwest where Rice's work had originated. I found my first project, creating a detailed species list on dye producing fungi for the Midwest.


Fungi like plants, experience species diversity and regional differences. Taxonomy is constantly changing. I’m curious if species in the Midwest that are known to produce dye will extract similar colors to specimens collected in published data from other regions. There is additional potential to discover species that are previously unknown to produce dye as they might not exist in regions previously researched.  


To begin this project, I needed a master list of all fungi that had previously been identified to produce dye and their region along with colors produced. I couldn't find a master list. So, I created a database. I found nearly 300 species in all! I listed all of the sources I could finding including popular media books published by Rice, the Bessetts, and the species list provided by the North American Mycological Society. This list is designed to expand, if anyone has additional species to add please contact me. 


One could easily spend lifetime conducting experiments on fungi for color. Though availability of species can be affected by weather conditions, luck of the find, and/or having enough species to conduct dye tests. Connecting community has immeasurable benefits most importantly, expediating research which could have a positive impact on the environment in the wake of climate change. My hope is that people who participate in any aspect of this project, learn something new and gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world. I feel that Science and Art have a greater impact when they are accessible to more people, beyond the walls of academia. 


The first specimens for this dataset were collected with community at the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) Conference in Potosi, Missouri in the Fall of 2022 and other forays throughout the Midwest region. The experiment featured in this database was conducted as a demonstration exhibition at the Flyway Farms Fungi Festival in Makanda, Illinois in October 2022 through the Wild Seed Field Museum. The database will continue to grow as more species are tested and added at workshops throughout 2023 and beyond.