Alpinia Purpurata as a Resource for Making Plant Dye

Alpinia Purpurata

Commonly referred to by various names including red ginger, pink cone ginger, and ostrich plume, alpinia purpurata is often used ornamentally to add a decorative flare to landscapes. Beyond that, its leaves contain within them potential for naturally imparting color to textiles.

Red Ginger Plant Dye Shibori

Dyeing Textiles with the Leaves of Alpinia Purpurata

The first book that I ever accessed to learn more about making dyes naturally lists a myriad of plants that I come in contact wirh on a regular basis. I was not aware of their dyeing potential.

In fact, one that has become a staple in my dyeing adventures was growing abundantly right in the yard.

Leaves of Alpinia Purpurata

Red ginger–whose scientific name is alpinia purpurata–is native to the South Pacific but is also available in the tropics and subtropics. While it prefers wet habitats, it can also be grown in dry areas.

This plant has traditionally been used as medicine, adornment, and dye. As a dye, it binds easly to fabric, although the process could be a slow one. In my work, I’ve only used the plant to solar dye textiles. It’s not uncommon for me to allow fabric to steep in the dye for up to one week, There are also times when I allow it to stay two weeks. The longer the fabric remains in the jar, the more intense the color will be.

Achieving Color with Red Ginger Leaves

The initial boiling of the leaves will produce a darl yellow color. When applied to cellulose or plant fibers, this color will not likely be of much significance once the fabric dries. However, the initially produced color will be enriched over time as the liquid is allowed to receive direct sunlight through a glass jar.

It should also be noted that boiling the same leaves repeatedly up to three times will also produce the rich burgundy color. Each batch of dye made in the process of reboiling leaves can be used as dye to achieve different colors.

Using Bracts for Color

Well, let me first mention that the red or pink, cone or funnel shaped growths of alpinia purpurata are referred to as bracts.  They are not the flowers of the plant.  The flowers are small and white and emerge from the bracts over time. 

With that being said, the bracts are useful as plant dye as well.  My primary way of utilitzing this part of the plant has been through the process of bundle dyeing or eco printing.

When wrapped in fabric and steamed, the individual parts that make up the bract can produce beautiful colors including pinks, purples, greens, and even blues.  I’m always excited when tuquoise appears as well!

Color Fastness When Dyeing with Alpinia Purpurata

I’ve have no issue with color remaining in fibers after dying with the red ginger plant, even after numerous washes. Just like with synthetic dyes, color can begin to lose intensity after being washed repeatedly. However, I’ve yet to dye a piece of fabric with red ginger leaf dye and have that color completely wash out.

Through research I’ve learned that the amount of tannin in alpinia purpurata is on par with that found in avocado seeds, which are used regularly in textile dyeing due to their high tannin content and the color that results due to the tannin. I’m not sure and didn’t find information about the part of the plant in which this tannin is mostly concentrated, but I’m going to assume there’s a lot in the leaves.

Despite the dye extracted from the leaves of the red ginger plant having strong binding techniques to fibers, preparing textiles for dyeing can provide a sense of security that the color will not in fact wash out.

Through my research I’ve come across information suggesting that pre-mordanting textiles with aluminum acetate (as opposed to aluminum potassium sulfate) then appying a tannin solution is good practice when dyeing cellulose fibers in particular. I’ve tested this out and have found it to be true. However, this doesn’t mean using the alum found in many spice aisles can’t be used instead. I think it is by far recommended over aluminum acetate.

I also make a binding solution by boiliing chopped avocado seeds and leaves from the kukui or candlenut tree. Similar to avocado seends, kukui leaves have a significant amount of tannin. Instead of or sometimes in addition to alum of any kind, I simply pre-soak textiles in this mixture prior to applying plant dye.

If you want more assurance that your red ginger leaf dye will bind to the textiles you are dyeing, this is something you way want to experiement with. However, as I stated, the red ginger leaf dye alone has proven to hold up over time in my experience.

Always be mindfull that regular exposure to the sun can expidite the fading of natural plant dye color over time.

How to Dye Textiles with Alpinia Purpurata

The process of using the plant to make dye is pretty straight forward.

Take 4 or 5 leaves and cut them into pieces.

Place them in a bowl, bucket, or pot and let soak overnight.

Using the same water that they’ve been soaking in, bring the leaves to a boil.

Simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour to extract color.

Next, turn off the heat and either submerge the textile into the pot with the dye or pour the liquid into a glass jar, place it in the sun, and allow the dye to pentrate the fibers deeply over the course of 1-3 days.

I usually allow my textiles to solar dye for 1 to 2 weeks depending on the situation. Of course, solar dyeing isn’t suitable for everyone year-round, so make use of the boiling process as needed.

Also, in addition to dyeing to achieve a solid color, play around with various binding techniques (e.g. tie dye and shibori) to see what kind of neat patterns out can create on fabric.

Once the dyeing is complete, hang the textile to dry.

Growing Alpinia Purpurata

This resource from the University of Hawai’i Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources provides a lot of valuable information about ornamental ginger including how to grow and care for the plant. In the document under the section titled “Propagation”, information is shared on how to grow the plant from the offshoots that emerge diectly from the inflorecences.

In my quest to run my own little nursery side-hustle, I’ve propagated and successfully grown numerous red ginger plants from the offshoots that grow from the plants in my yard. It’s fairly easy, too.

Alpinia Purpurata

If you’re able to obtain offshoots, you can plant them directly in soil or put them in water, watch for white roots to emerge, them plant them in soil. (The latter is my preferred method.) It can take a couple of years for you to have a flowering plant, but in the meantime you could experiment with using the baby leaves for dye.

Alpinia purpurata offshoots

Alpinia purpurata roots growing

If you want to use this plant as dye and have no access to it in your area or are not in a region where the climate is condusive to growing ginger outdoors, you can have success growing it indoors if you can get your hands on a red ginger plant at a nursery near you.


As someone who likes functionality and multi-use items, I really appreciate the diversity of red ginger plants. In terms of its use as a natural dye for textiles, it holds a lot of potential. In Hawai’i the plants are most commonly used as a decorative element for landscping. The bracts are also widely used in flower arrangements and lei making. Condsidering this, I can’t help but think of all of the red ginger plants that get discarded once their use is complete. Once the enjoyment of their beauty is over, they could actually provide so much more!

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