By Ashley Walker
Copyright August 2018
Since the industrialisation of synthetic dyes most of the knowledge of plant dyes was lost in Europe until it was partially revived by craftspeople like Ethel Mairet and Later Jill Goodwin, Hetty Wickens, Jim Liles, Jenny Dean and many others. Jill Goodwin lists 140 dye plants alone in her book “A Dyer’s Manual”. Reading the books of these trailblazers has given me an almost obsessive interest in some of these plants – how to grow them, how they are related, what dyes do they have in common etc. In today’s plant dye world we seem to have concentrated on just a handful of key plants (such as Madder, Japanese indigo, and Weld) which give the best and most light fast colours. People still like to try dyeplant materials that are easily foraged and some of these produce good colours, but many are short lived. Personnally I think that foraging in an already over exploited environment is a practice that should be avoided if possible and I want to grow the plants myself, find out more about them, what they look like, how they grow, what sort of conditions they like, how closely related they are, what pests eat them etc. Natural dyeing is a step on the way to connecting with our precious environment and finding out about and growing the plants we use is another step.
Some while back I realised that Common Madder has a host of relatives, some of which are actually native to the British Isles. As you would expect with close relatives, these plants are similar in appearance and habit. They are all clambering or creeping plants with weak, square stems and thin spikey leaves which usually grow in whorls from the stems.
There follows a list of some of the experiences I’ve had with new plants this year starting with relatives of Common Madder. Where possible I obtained seeds and started them indoors in seed trays in March/April, planting out in May.
Dyers Woodruff – Asperula tinctoria
I was unable to obtain any seeds for this madder relative so I was very pleased to discover a Scottish plant nursery (Poyntzfield Herb Nursery) selling the plants. In March, they sent a big bundle of bare rooted plants wrapped in sphagnum moss. But as we were then still experiencing freezing and wet conditions I potted up the thick red roots in some ordinary potting compost. Most of these have grown well but a few died after initial good growth. There remain a few which are struggling with yellow brownish foliage even though I planted them out in a variety of soil types. I’m not at all sure what the problem is. Dyer’s Woodruff is an attractive feathery plant similar to its relatives with two to four small thin leaves at intervals along its stem. Small white flowers appeared in June. Now in early August it looks as if a tiny few are developing seeds, which I hope I’ll be able to save. The roots are not as large as madder but they are quite respectable and I’m thinking that of all the new madder relatives we obtained this year this is the most promising. The books say it will grow in acid and alkaline soils and can also grow in partial shade. I’m testing this out.
Ladies Bedstraw – Galium verum
This plant is native to Hertfordshire and happily grows in chalk soil meadows. It will also grow in many other conditions, including poor sandy soils. The leaves are smaller than Dyer’s Woodruff but have whorls of six leaves at intervals along its stem, much like madder. This plant has grown from seed very robustly. I planted seedlings out in clumps of 15 to 20 creating very attractive cushions of feathery green foliage. These have grown into ground covering carpets with flower stems reaching 6-12 inches high, with tight clusters of pretty yellow flowers in July/August. It makes an excellent trailing plant and although the flowers don’t last long it would make an attractive contrast to some more showy flowers. In the wild this plant is very competitive and will happily grow in grassy meadows. Tended and watered it responds very well, producing long lasting carpets of foliage. Wild plant roots are thinner than Dyer’s Woodruff so I’ll be interested to see if cultivation makes a difference.
Field Madder – Sherardia arvensis
This is a classic annual weed of agricultural areas producing small creeping plants with tiny pale pink flowers, leaf whorls of from 4 to 6 leaves looking very much like miniature madder leaves and large seeds which are produced very quickly. It’s difficult to see how this could have been used as a dye plant considering its small size, short life cycle and thin roots. The books say it was used, so I thought I’d give it a try. Seeds are not too difficult to obtain but do not readily germinate – they have a typical weed habit of staying dormant in the soil maybe for years waiting until the conditions are just right. They do produce a mass of roots so it could be worthwhile. I think that the key to obtaining an easy harvest would be to grow it in pots in good quality compost that could be washed away when the roots have grown. I do not know how much of a problem weed these plants are but they do seem to like growing with other plants which they use for support and do not do so well on their own. They are supposed to be good self seeders so we will see.
Devils Bit Scabious – Succisa pratensis
This is a plant I’ve wanted to grow for a long time for its ability to attract bees and other pollinators. In addition, its pin-cushion-like flowers are a pretty lavender blue and open out in July to October at the same time as many of our yellow flowering dye plants. Growing some plants with a contrasting flower colour has been a bit of an obsession for us. Yellow is nice but needs contrasting colours to really bring it out so I was delighted to discover that the Devil’s Bit Scabious is also a reasonable dye plant, at least according to Jean Fraser in her book Traditional Scottish Dyes where she gives a recipe for greenish yellow with alum mordanted material. Intriguingly she also notes that according to Ethel Mairet the leaves of the Devil’s Bit plant also contain indigo, but I’ve read that before about Weld and that turned out to be nonsense. (I can feel an experiment coming on!).
The plant grows much like woad, producing a thick rosette of large leaves in the first year or two before flowering. It is a perennial but can, according to other accounts, suffer from getting crowded out by more vigorous plants. It is notoriously difficult to germinate from seed – out of about 100 seeds I only managed to get about 4 germinations and, on previous attempts, none at all. Fortunately the plant can be obtained from specialist nurseries and we got some very healthy specimens from Rosybee which have grown very well and two of these have just started to come into flower.
Shrubs and trees
Alder Buckthorn – Frangula alnus
Alder and Purging Buckthorn are often sold as hedging plants. They can be found growing in the UK countryside provided you know what they look like. And there is the rub! They look pretty much like a whole load of other small trees so part of the reason we decided to buy some saplings was to familiarise ourselves and be able to identify them in the wild. The nursery we bought the plants from (Ashridge Nursaries) were adamant that Alder Buckthorn could not be grown in our chalk soil so I have put plants in different soils and environments to see how they get on. They arrived bare-rooted in mid March, after the late freeze relented. I heeled them in compost in a sheltered spot on the patio at home until planting them out in April. So far the best growth has been achieved on the allotment, planted in a special “acid” bed made by piling up and digging in ericaceous compost to the light chalk soil. Second best growth is in a large garden planter filled with a mixture of ericaceous and ordinary compost. The last 2 were planted into a cleared grove of Blackthorn growing on chalk soil without any compost, or any watering for that matter. Needless to say these two have not grown much at all, but they are still alive despite the drought and alkaline soil, so we will see. The bark and leaves of this and Purging Buckthorn are usually cited as sources of yellows to dark brown dye stuffs with “sap” green coming from the unripe or ripe berries (different sources give different information). Of the two species, Alder Buckthorn seems to be the main dye plant but I have been unable to find any direct comparison. Another experiment that needs doing!
Purging Buckthorn – Rhamnus cathartica
Very similar in appearance to Alder Buckthorn but supposedly equally happy on acid or alkaline soil. I planted most of the saplings on chalk soil at my apiary and left them to fend for themselves. But I saved one sapling to try out in an acid bed, on the allotment (near the Alder Buckthorn) but it has not grown as vigorously and the leaves have gone yellow in places.
Both Purging and Alder Buckthorn are serious invasive pests in the United States and Canada and are banned in two US states.
Black or Quercitron Oak – Quercus velutina
This is a large tree from central and eastern USA which became a very important commercial source of yellow dye in Europe in the 19th Century, even after synthetic dyes started to dominate. We have read a fair bit about this tree’s splendid history and that of the man who promoted it (Edward Bancroft – scientist and spy) and thought we would try and grow it mainly out of historical curiosity. Despite a warning found in one dye book that you could not grow it in the UK, we found a supplier in Cornwall (Burncoose Nurseries). So we are now the proud owners of a small sapling growing in a large planter in our back garden. It will be great to see if we can get some dye stuff from the inner bark but, let’s face it we might be long dead by the time the tree is big enough to harvest a branch or two!
Smooth Sumac – Rhus glabra
Of all the different species of Sumac, we decided on this North American one for several reasons. It’s perhaps one of the most decorative, it is wildlife friendly and also fully hardy. It has a high tannin content and the berries it produces are said to be edible. It can produce invasive underground suckers so we are growing it in a large planter. There are plenty of other sumacs growing in peoples gardens and in waste areas around Hitchin but it’s nice to have one right there in the back garden – no foraging needed.
Hopefully in a year’s time we’ll have some dyed samples to show how successful these new plants have proven to be.
Traditional Scottish Dyes by Jean Fraser
Edward Bancroft Scientist, Author, Spy by Thomas J. Schaeper
A Dyer’s Manual by Jill Goodwin
Natural Dyes for Spinners and Weavers by Hetty Wickens, A batsford craft Paperback.
The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, Traditional recipes for Modern use by J. N. Liles
Rosybee – Plants for bees http://www.rosybee.com
Poyntzfield Herb Nursery http://www.poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk
Ashridge Nurseries https://www.ashridgetrees.co.uk
Burncoose Nurseries https://www.burncoose.co.uk