Resources Details

Diverse Uses of Plants

This is a two-part activity lesson that teaches students how plants and plant products are important in many aspects of our daily lives. Students dye cotton materials using plants as dye sources and then weave using the colored yarns. They learn the steps used to dye fabric and that chemical substances called mordants will help fix and intensify the colors of dyed materials. Class activity and discussions have students think about the different uses of plants. Individual weaving activities also encourage visual arts. Reading and background materials illustrate that Native Americans gathered plants for not only food but also as medicines, decorative items and much more.

Key Concepts

Life Science, Plants, Uses of Plants


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2- 50 minute class periods




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Life Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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Native Americans traditionally have used plants in many ways -- as food, medicine, ceremonial objects, dyes, and materials for weaving into cloth or baskets. Many plants like peppermint and burdock (cocklebur) were native treatments for a wide range of medical problems. Peppermint can be used not only as a tea, but also as a cleanser and to sooth burns. The burdock plant, which also is a highly nutritious food source, treated acne, burns, eczema, constipation, and more. The Blackfeet used the yarrow plant, which they called the gopher tail plant, as another cure-all with many uses. It stopped bleeding, soothed rashes, and minimized motion sickness. Added to bath water, yarrow kept the skin soft and supple. Combined with other ingredients (such as peppermint, rose hips and sweet Cicely), yarrow was a native remedy for colds, flu, arthritis pain, and more.

Native Americans utilized plants to improve their day-to-day lives. An example is silver sage, known to the Blackfeet as "man Sage." A greenish-gray, low-growing plant easily identified on the prairies of northcentral Montana, the sage served as a natural mosquito and pest repellent. Native Americans also used plants to dye wool, baskets, tipi covers, buffalo robes, and porcupine quills. Some common dye plants were coneflowers, sumac, madder, black walnut, white birch, sunflowers, chokecherries, wild plums, wild grapes, hickory, blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, larkspur, Oregon grape, and cedar, just to name a few.

Dyeing is a process of adhering color molecules onto a surface. Using natural (plant) dyes requires heat to extract the dye from the plant. The longer the fabric stays in the heated dye pot, the stronger the final color. Dye pots normally are heated to a maximum of 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 -- 45 minutes. If the fabric and dye are boiled, the materials begin to break down and become brittle. Substances called mordants typically are added to the material and dye during the dyeing process. These mineral salts help the dye molecules adhere to a surface by combining with the dye molecules to form an insoluble compound. Common present-day mordants include tin, iron, chrome, alum, and copper. Native Americans used urine and juniper ashes as mordants.


The purpose of this activity is to illustrate to students that plants have many uses other than as food sources. Some plants are noteworthy as medicinal substances while others have industrial uses, such as trees that yield latex sap for rubber production. Students will learn about using plants to dye and weave fabrics during a class activity. They also will learn some of the many uses Native Americans found for plants growing in their local environments.


Edith Horn Wagner
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

I have been teaching for 12 years, two of which were in Frazer, MT. I currently teach 6th grade math and science for the Browning Public Schools. I am married and have 3 children.


  • weaving
  • mordant
  • dye

Learner Outcomes

  • Recognize that there are many uses for plants and plant products.
  • Observe and discuss the use of plant products as fabric dyes.
  • Realize that methods like adding mordants to fix color will give the best results when dyeing fabrics.
  • Understand that native cultures depended on plants in diverse ways.

Content Standards

  • Science as Inquiry Content Standard A: Abilities to do scientific inquiry
  • Life Science Content Standard C: The characteristics of organisms
  • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F: Types of resources


  • White cotton yarn or heavy string (8 feet for each child, cut in half)
  • Dye materials – ex. marigolds, sunflowers, onion skins (red or yellow), tea bags, blueberries, blackberries (any combination of plant material is fine but you will need sufficient amounts for at least two different batches/colors of dye).
  • Hot plate
  • Large glass pots - two (large enough for yarn and dye plants to float without crowding)
  • Water for pots and for rinsing dyed yarn
  • Wooden spoon (after use in activity, should not be used in food)
  • Mordant – alum (found in the grocery store in spice aisle)
  • Thermometer
  • 4- x 5-inch pieces of cardboard – one per child
  • Optional Book – The Goat in the Rug by Charles L. Blood & Martin Link (an illustrated story about a goat and a young Navajo woman who weaves rugs)

Lesson Procedures

  • Optional -- read The Goat in the Rug to the entire class. It describes the lengthy process of making a native rug, from collecting and dyeing the wool to weaving the Navajo rug.; Write a list of the plants used in the book to dye the wool. If you don't have the book, lead a class discussion of plants the students have noticed will stain their hands when touching the plants.
  • Ask students to predict what other plants would produce a dye color.; Discuss the concept of a mordant.
  • Choose two types of plants or plant material as dye sources (you need equal volumes of yarn and plants).
    • Divide the total amount of yarn into four parts.
    • Place one of the selected plant materials (amount equals 1/2 volume of the total yarn) into a pot that is three-quarters full of water.
    • Simmer the plant material for 30 minutes. Water temperature should be about 180 degrees Fahrenheit; do not let boil. ***water is hot -- do not let students do this without adult supervision
    • Skim off the plant material, leaving the colored water.
    • Pour half of the colored water into another pot. Soak ¼ of the yarn in clean water until wet.
    • Place the wet yarn carefully into one of the dye pots. Make certain the yarn is fully immersed by pressing it down with the wooden spoon and stirring gently
    • Simmer for 30 minutes. Do not let it boil.
    • Use the wooden spoon to remove the yarn from the dye pot into the sink.
    • Rinse dyed yarn with warm water until the water runs clear.
    • Hang yarn to dry -- this can be over a sink or outside, etc.
  • Place second pot (with the same dye color) onto the hot plate and add 2-4 teaspoons of alum to the water.
    Wet next group of yarn (1/4 of total amount) and add it to the dye pot.; Repeat steps above.
  • Compare the colors of the dyed yarn. Is there a difference between the yarn that was dyed using the mordant and the one not using a mordant? Why or why not?
  • Complete the steps above using a different plant material. Did the two samples react the same to the mordants? Why or why not?
  • Weaving the Yarn when dry.
    • Give each student a rectangle of cardboard.
    • Instruct each student to cut 10 cuts into each of the ends of the cardboard. Cuts should be ½ inch long and on opposite sides. Have students draw the lines before cutting.
    • Give each student 8 feet of dyed yarn, 4 feet of one color and 4 feet of another. It does not matter if they get the yarn with mordant or without.
    • Tell students to use one four-foot section to warp the cardboard loom. The warping should look as follows.
    • Tell students to use any leftover yarn from the warp, as well as the other four-foot section of dyed yarn (the second color), to weave on the loom (this is the weft). Tie one end of the weft yarn to a strand in the corner of the warp. Students will go over one string and under the next to form the weave or weft. When weaving is done, tie the end of the weft string to a warp string.<.ul>


    • Plants have many uses in addition to being sources of food for humans and animals.
    • Adding a mordant to the dye solution “fixes” the color of the newly dyed cloth or yarn.


    • Participation in class discussions (including prediction of mordant’s effect)
    • Participation in class dyeing activity
    • Individual weaving activity


    • List different plant products used in various ways in your own home, other than those used as food. (For example, plant products like aloe vera and fruit extracts are common ingredients in many personal care items, such as shampoos and lotions. Cotton clothing and wooden building materials are other everyday examples.)
    • Discuss different examples from your own experience of plants staining or dyeing your skin or some other object -- for example, rubbing your chin with dandelion flowers, stains on cement sidewalks caused by fallen leaves, or how your tongue turns colors when eating foods like blueberries.
    • Research other examples of how Native Americans used plants; examples include Blackfeet traditions of making antibiotic salves and burning sage leaves as mosquito repellents.


    • Weaving
    • Natural Dyeing
    • Mordants