Category Archives: Growing Madder

Susan Dye and Ashley Walker

The Natures Rainbow garden 2018 – Part one

by Ashley Walker
Copyright August 2018
Banner photograph copyright Sharon Cooper

On the 9th August, after two months with barely a drop of rain, the heatwave and drought in the South East of England may finally have come to an end. Despite regular watering the unnatural weather has taking its toll on our dye plants. For the first time our woad plants are being eaten by Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars (Large White Pieris brassicae and Small White Pieris rapae) and more recently by flea beetles (genus Phyllotreta). I guess the critters were getting desperate to find plants with a bit of juice in their leaves. The weather is having an impact on me as well, I have to water the indigo nearly every day and keeping the rest of the garden needs water too so I’m spending hours each week that I’d rather be spending on writing or dyeing.

This is the first part of a two part post on observations of the dye plants in our garden. This one deals with the plants we have been growing for more than a year. The second part will cover new plants.

European Woad – Isatis tinctoria

Isatis tinctoria being eaten by Large White butterfly caterpillars

These Large White caterpillars managed to eat the whole woad leaf, leaving only the midrib behind.

We have grown Woad for about 12 years now and for the first time our plants have been attacked by caterpillars and flea beetles. This makes a change from the usual small black slugs which put a few holes in the leaves but seldom do any serious damage.

Isatis Tinctoria leaf with eggs and lava of Large Cabbage White butterfly

A cluster of Large White butterfly eggs on the underside of a woad leaf

Isatis Tinctoria being attacked by Flea Beatles

Shiny black small Flea Beatles can slowly chew their way through a woad leaf leaving it like a sieve.

Isatis tinctoria

Woad flower spike August 2018 – from seed to flower in one season as a result of pampering.

I expect that the extraordinary hot weather is to blame with the butterflies and beetles probably acting in desperation. Although the flea beetles appear to thrive, the caterpillars have had a much harder time digesting the unpalatable leaves and most of the newly hatched critters have simply died, leaving a few small holes in the leaf. Only one plant had its leaves reduced to its midrib but even this one will survive as it is now putting out new growth. Interestingly it appears to be only the plants I have watered which are being eaten. There are a few plants which never get watered and these are looking fine.

A few people have asked about growing Woad in tubs or containers and this year we’ve had a few in containers ourselves and this has revealed a problem. One of our plants grown in a container in good compost and watered and fed regularly has grown large and is currently putting out a flower spike which will drastically reduce the amount of indigo in its leaves. Its very unusual to see Woad flowering in August so I can only assume we have pampered it too much – given it the ability to grow large enough to flower in one season. So if you are growing Woad in containers don’t give them too much fuss!

Chinese Woad – Isatis indigotica  

Isatis indegotica

Chinese Woad – about as big as it gets before flowering

Isatis indigotica

Planted out in April these Chinese Woad immediately produced flower stems

We have been growing this for two years now, desperately trying to find out how to stop it flowering a few months after planting. From what I’ve read I’m in good company and this is the chief reason Chinese Woad has not caught on as a source of indigo, despite the fact that it could potentially produce as much dye as Japanese Indigo. Some of the literature indicates that botanists think Isatis indigotica is basically just a variety of tinctoria (European Woad). However, if that is so it has evolved away from tinctoria to a considerable extent. Indigotica is clearly adapted to a much warmer climate and although still nominally a biennial it behaves much more like a half hardy annual. It will flower at any time of year, even in winter, so its rosette stage is always very short and the plant never gets very big. The leaves are a paler blue-green than European Woad and its yellow flowers will continue to be produced throughout the year provided the plants are watered and taken care of. Once the plant starts to flower the larger rosette leaves die off leaving only small leaves on the plant which are probably no good for dyeing. According to the Handbook of Natural Colorants, indigotica will be triggered into flowering if the night time temperature falls below 5°C, which makes it almost impossible to grow the plant to any respectable size here in the UK. Even in Mediterranean climates the plant can only usefully be grown in the Summer. From my experience the plant will flower even if you just look at it the wrong way so I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort. It does grow very quickly however and if you were to grow it en masse and harvest the leaves before it flowered it might just provide a return for your efforts.

Another problem with Chinese Woad is its susceptibility to pests. Caterpillars and aphids like it very much and can easily destroy your plants.  And you guessed it, significant insect damage will also trigger flowering. In a mad moment I decided to see if Chinese Woad tasted any nicer than European Woad. But the taste test settled nothing, both plants are extremely bitter and fiery. I obviously don’t have the finer tastes of Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars!

Japanese indigo – Persicaria tinctoria

Persicaria tinctoria - Long Leaf variety

Long leaf variety of Japanese Indigo with curled leaves to protect itself the prolonged hot sun of 2018

This year we are growing the same three varieties as last year – Long Leaved, Broad Leaved and an Intermediate Leaved white flowered variety. There appears to have been no interbreeding from last year. This year the difference between the long leaf and broad leaf varieties is stark. The Long Leaf plant is very vigorous with dark green leaves. The Broad Leaf variety took a long time to get going as usual and suffered from its leaves turning red. I was initially confident that the red colour was partly due to the hot sunny weather we were having in early summer – the slow growing plants were getting roasted. But after a good feed (with chicken manure pellets) the plants started growing quickly with the new foliage a nice mid green despite the continued hot sunny weather. So a bit of a chicken and egg situation: was it the lack of fertilizer that caused the leaves to redden or simply that the young plant leaves, growing slowly, were getting a longer exposure to the hot sun?  The Long Leaf variety reacted differently to the hot sun with leaf curling , something I had seen last year but only on plants grown in the greenhouse.

Persicaria tinctoria

A bed of intermediate White flowering Japanese Indigo.

Persicaria tinctoria

Newly planted out Broad Leaf Japanese Indigo with sun reddened leaves.

Thus far we have only harvested the Long Leaf variety and used it in a little experiment comparing Jenny Dean’s extraction technique with the more often used long soak in cool water. The results will be written up in a later post. What I have also noticed is that we are currently getting a considerably better production of indigo from Woad than the Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo. Woad is well known for giving better results when the weather is hot and sunny. If the climate change predictions are correct and we continue to have hot summer weather then I think we would be better to return to growing mostly Woad. The Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo produces the least amount of indigo dye of the three varieties (see comparison here) but it does produce larger plants so perhaps still produces an equivalent amount of indigo per square metre.

Madder – Rubia tinctorumRubia tinctorum berries

Once again this year the madder plants are producing masses of berries. This is the third year running. In the previous 10 years or so the plants produced only a few. I have no explanation as to why this is.  I’ve grown plants in different soil, in planters and in the ground and all plants are doing the same. A result of the weather?

Rubia tinctorum

Madder plant obtained from Southwark Cathedral in early 2018.

This year we obtained a new madder plant sourced from Southwark Cathedral dye garden. The plant is quite different to plants I have been growing up to now (all of which were derived from a single seed over 10 years ago). This new plant has paler leaves with a different shape and it flowers about 3-4 weeks later. It will be interesting to see if the root yield is also different. I’m pleased to have been able to increase the genetic diversity of our madder as I’ve always propagated by root stem cuttings or from seeds from my own plants.

Wild Madder – Rubia peregrina

Rubia peregrina

Wild Madder in flower – Early July

We’ve been growing this plant for nearly three years now. It’s an evergreen but the tops do not appear to be totally hardy in the UK climate and were damaged by the winter frosts. This is the first year in which the plants (originally obtained from a wild flower nursery) are starting to look a bit happier. They are putting out new shoots from underground stems and flowering for the first time. It remains however a very slow growing perennial and I think it will take longer than Common Madder to produce a good root harvest so we are leaving it for another year.

I was given some seed from a friend from some wild plants growing on the south west coast which nearly all germinated though it did take well over a month before the first shoots appeared.

Saw wort – Serratula tinctoria

Serratula tinctoria

Saw-Wort plants with yellowing of leaves.

Serratula tinctorum

A self seeded plant with dark green leaves growing next to the transplanted ones with yellow leaves.

This native  plant continues to be disappointing. Not only do the plants remain small but about half of them suffer from bad yellowing of the leaves once planted out in the garden. I have tried practically everything to remedy the problem – fertiliser, Epsom salts and seaweed extract. There are some self-seeded plants which look very healthy so I do wonder if the roots are somehow getting seriously damaged during transplanting. It also remains likely that there is something wrong with the soil itself as other plants (Genista, a red scabious and a Purging Buckthorn shrub) are similarly affected.

Serratula tinctoria dye comparison

A comparison of our main yellow dye plants. Top is Weld, Bottom Right is Genista and Bottom Left is Saw-Wort

We did try dyeing with the Saw Wort this year and obtained a good buttery yellow. We were hoping it would be a nice lemon yellow like Weld and Genista so were a bit disappointed with that too.

Dahlia species

Dahlia Species

Bumble bee on single type dahlia grown from seed.

Dahlia Species

Dark Red Dahlia giving pinky purple and greens. Possibly “Nuit d’Ete” or “Black Cat”

The colour of Dahlia flowers has an effect on its dye but we did not appreciate by just how much until this year when we tried using some deep red flowers to dye with. We obtained nothing like our accustomed strong yellows with acid pH and strong orange with alkaline pH. This time we got green with alkali and blue/purple with acid indicating that the dyes in this dark red flower were the same as you find in red cabbage and some other red flowers. These dyes, although very pretty, are not light fast. Over the years of growing Dahlia we have narrowed down the varieties that produce the best results for the home dyer. These are yellow or orange double flowering pom pom types. The pom pom flowers are longer lasting and produce more dye – some pom poms are very large and yield a lot of dye but bees and pollinators are unable to assess the nectaries. We have tried to stay away from these but there’s no doubt they are the best for dyers.

Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare

Tanacetum vulgare

Tansy needs regular watering for healthy plants.

Often used by Scottish dyers as a source of yellow dye this plant has been growing in our garden for several years now but largely unused because the plant wasn’t very vigorous. There was never enough plant material to harvest and the flowers were disappointing. This year we planted a bed of Japanese indigo alongside so the Tansy benefitted from being regularly watered. The resulting Tansy flowers have been lovely so if you’re growing them keep them watered for best results.

Perennial Coreopsis –  Coreopsis grandiflora varieties e.g. Golden Joy, Sun Ray, Early Sunrise

Coreopsis grandiflora

Perennial coreopsis – plant breeders benefitting the plant dyer.

Coreopsis grandiflora

Bright orange on alum mordanted wool blanket.

These are double flowering perennials with deep orangey yellow flowers which produce a lot of dye. They are not as hardy as the growers would have you believe as half our plants died during the winter and only a few have recovered enough to put on a good show this year. However, many can be easily grown from seed so are not too expensive to grow. They make excellent bedding plants and produce a fabulous orange dye from the flowers. An example of the plant breeders unwittingly aiding the home dyer.

Dyer’s Alkanet – Alkanna tinctoria?Alkanna tinctoria

Alkanna tinctoria

Alkanet root. Bottom tip has had thin outer black bark removed revealing the dissapointingly white root.

This is the third year of growing and though I have not tried to extract any dye from its roots I am deeply disappointed to find that the roots are not red as they should be. I was suspicious as soon as I started to grow the plant from seed bought from the German Company Rühlemann’s. The plant seemed too vigorous with over large leaves and not hairy enough, but I persisted with it until it flowered. The flower shoots were tall (up to about a metre high) and not at all like the creeping wild flower growing around its native Mediterranean. The flowers when they finally appeared were the only part of the plant that looked like the pictures of Alkanna tinctoria seen all over the internet but the roots? The roots were white!

Doing some reading around this ancient dye plant I find that its qualities as a medicinal plant derive solely from the coloured substances in the root which were used as a dye, cosmetic and bio stain so you can imagine the way I feel after lavishing attention on this plant for the last three years only to find the roots are white! Recently I discovered one internet comment on the plant that says the cultivated version of the plant does not produce as much dye as the wild type. Well that’s some understatement. Of course it is possible that lavishing attention on the plant was entirely the wrong thing to do and I should have left it alone but it seems more likely that the growers have simply selected the seed year after year from the largest prettiest plants and in so doing have bred out the qualities that gave the plant its historical value.

Just to confuse matters Alkanna tinctoria has been and is also known as “Anchusa bracteolata, Alkanna tuberculata, Alkanna lehmanii, Lithospermum lehmanii”, and has been given various common names as follows Alkanna Radix, Buglosse des Teinturiers, Dyer’s Bugloss, Henna, Orcanète, Orcanette, Orcanette des Teinturiers, Orchanet, Radix Anchusae. Rühlemann’s who sell the seed are now calling it Alkanna tuberculata. There is certainly confusion on the identity of all these plants. Are they all the same or not. If there are any botanists out there  who can get to the bottom of this please please get in touch!

References

Philip John and Luciana Gabriella Angelini – Indigo – Agricultural Aspects. Chapter 7 of Handbook of Natural Colorants  Edited by Thomas Bechtold and Rita Mussak. Wiley Series in Renewable Resourses. (Available as free download).

Rühlemann’s  This German herb plant and seed supplier has a number of dye plants for sale including Chinese Woad and Long Leaf Japanese Indigo but it is primarily interested in the medical properties of the plants it sells and I get the impression they know little about plant dyeing.

Rubia tinctorum

Growing Madder

An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2017

Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is an excellent source of red dye. It is indigenous to Southern Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa but has many close relatives (in the genus Rubia) around the world.

Rubia tinctorum

Young madder plant

Propagation, Care and Maintenance

As a herbaceous perennial, Common Madder dies all the way back to the soil at the end of every year. This means that madder beds can be mulched over the winter to suppress weeds and protect the soil from nutrient loss. Mulching with well-rotted manure or other soil improvers will have the added benefit of fertilising the soil.

Rubia tinctorum

Shoots of madder in the early spring surrounded by the dead stems of last year’s growth

Madder shoots appear in March and will withstand mild frosts. They grow into a mass of long clambering stems which need support to grow above a foot or two in height. Madder will tolerate coastal conditions of wind and salt and is highly resistant to pests and diseases. Seedlings will benefit from protection from slugs, but the shoots of mature plants need no protection. Growth can always be improved with a little fertiliser and watering in hot dry weather but we generally leave our madder to fend for itself and it still gets good harvests. The green part of the plant contains very little dye stuff but was used as animal fodder and reportedly would turn their bones red over time.

Growing Common Madder requires considerable investment from the dye plant gardener. From seedling or cutting it takes three to four years before the roots have swelled to provide a satisfactory harvest. Time is not the only consideration either. The plant is highly invasive and if neglected it will spread to the rest of your garden. The plant’s main method of propagation is the underground stem which grows horizontally under the surface and pops up one to three feet away. If you are a diligent (and ruthless) gardener you can keep on top of it by pulling up the shoots every time they reappear. Our approach is to set aside part of our vegetable allotment for madder. We remove stray roots as and when we dig the vegetable beds over. In ten years we have only once had to take more drastic measures when the madder was heading for the neighbour’s allotment. Madder roots and shoots are relatively thick which makes them easy to remove when digging; keeping the plant under control is far easier than dealing with perennial weeds like bindweed and couch grass. If you have no ‘out of the way’ space suitable for madder and you maintain an ornamental garden, madder can be grown in a large raised bed with deep walls to prevent the underground stems from escaping or, failing that, a very large planter. Setting up a separate raised bed each year for four years would allow you to harvest madder every year. The larger the container or raised bed the better. As with all container gardening, the plants will need extra attention to watering and feeding compared to madder grown in open ground.

Rubia tinctorum

Green berries of Common Madder

Rubia tinctorum

Madder berries turn from green through red to black. Although the black berries produce a wonderful red juice it does not appear to be a useful dye.

Madder also propagates itself by seed. The seed of Cleavers (a close relative) is covered in tiny hooks which attach to passing animals. With Common and Wild Madder the large seeds are surrounded by a juicy black berry which is eaten and spread by birds. Madder seed once dried is notoriously difficult to germinate. Many sources suggest that it will self-seed readily in some countries but we have never come across a seedling in our allotment. All of our madder beds were derived from a single seed we managed to germinate many years ago. So if you know someone who is already growing madder ask them for a root cutting from the underground stems in the spring and you may save yourself a lot of time.

Note: If growing from seed I previously recommended using advice from a scientific paper [1] which had found that soaking the seeds in very hot water for a few minutes would help break the seeds dormancy but having tried it ourselves I can categorically withdraw this advice. DO NOT DO IT! All I managed to do was kill the seeds! I will be writing up the results of this experiment soon.

With its scrambling habit and close resemblance to cleavers, most people would not judge Common Madder an attractive garden plant. However, if weeds are kept at bay, large beds of madder produce beautiful clouds of tiny yellow star-shaped flowers in July/August and glossy black berries in October. Providing support for it to clamber over also improves its attractiveness.

Rubia tinctorum

Rubia tinctorumRubia tinctorum

Rubia tinctorum

Harvesting Madder Root

Rubia tinctorum

Underground stems (Rhizomes) and true roots

There are two main types of root: bulbous true roots and straighter underground stems or rhizomes.  Once established, the adventurous rhizomes soon start to swell and take on some of the characteristics of real roots. They begin to produce and store the various substances that bear pigment. Both true roots and new plant shoots grow from these rhizomes. The bulbous true roots are the most prized by dyers but three year old underground stems can be just as good so do not discard them.

Rubria tinctorium

The bright orange shoots are new growth stems.

Rubia tinctorum

Network of underground stems just under the surface.

Rubia tinctorum

Cut underground stem, note the orange woody ring with red center of pith.

Rubia tinctorum

Cut root with thin woody centre

Having to dig up the root is often cited as a barrier to growing Madder, particularly if the soil in your garden has a lot of clay but there are many ways to make the task easier. If you do have heavy soil invest in several bags of soil improver and a few bags of sand and dig in well before planting. If that sounds too strenuous, create a “no dig” bed and spread over it a very thick layer (at least one foot or thirty centimeters) of a mixture of manure, soil improver and sand. Top this up in the second or third winter. It is true that madder roots will go very deep (several feet) into the ground but there is no need to dig down that far as most of the roots, including the largest ones, are usually near the surface.

Rubia tinctorum

Root stems and rhizomes before and after washing. With a little gentle brushing the outer surface of bark (which contains brown dyes) can be removed to reveal the orange flesh of the root. The difference between root stem or rhizome and true roots is seen here . Root stems are invariably straight and have a woody ring with red pith centres. True roots are twisty and have a thin woody centre.

Rubia tinctorum

Soil type is not important to the health of the plant but growing madder in an alkaline soil stimulates the production of the red dye stuff. We are fortunate to have a light chalk soil in our garden which is already quite alkaline. For acid soils an application of lime will improve the dye yield.

The general consensus is that the best time to dig Madder in Northern Europe is late Autumn, after the roots have been replenished by a full season’s growth. The worst time to harvest is Spring when all the nutrients are coming out of the roots and going into new growth. However, we have harvested at all times of the year and found that the results are  similar so don’t be too constrained by the literature. Of more import is what you do with the roots after harvest.

Rubia tinctorum

Mature madder root

Rubia tinctorum

Once removed the outer bark reveals the translucent orange flesh. The central woody core can be seen here through the root.

Rubia tinctoria

Washing the roots with a jet of water

Root Processing

First they need to be washed to remove loose soil. This can be done with a hose connected to the mains and the spray head set to a narrow jet.

We leave the wet roots to drip dry outside in net wash bags and then move them to a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight where they will get plenty of air circulating around them. It takes around one to two months to fully dry the roots, when they can be snapped by hand or chopped up for storage in air tight containers or paper bags in a dry place. Slow drying followed by long storage allows more of the precursor substances in the root to be converted into alizarin which is the substance that gives the classic pink/red. The root is admittedly easier to chop when fresh but then much more difficult to dry unless you have access to a herb dryer.

The clean roots can be used immediately but remember that most dye recipes specify quantities for dry root. Our experiments show that drying reduces the weight by a factor of six. So rather than 50% weight of goods you will need 3 times the weight of goods in madder. Fresh root is also useful for dyeing cloth in eco-bundles.

Rubia tinctorum

The dried root is chopped up for final storage.

Although it involves more work and considerable patience, we much prefer to dry the roots and keep them for a year or so before use. Indeed we think that along with our chalky soil and hard water, this may help to explain our success in achieving very good reds from our home grown madder.

Other red giving plants for your dye garden

It could be argued that Common Madder, being so easy to grow and yielding a great deal of pigment is the only dye plant in the UK worth growing for reds. However why should we limit our plant dye and botanical knowledge in this way? There are a number of related plants which have played an important historical role where soils are not well suited to Common Madder. While it is against the law to uproot any wild plants, many of these can be easily grown from seed and some are available from wildflower nurseries. Examples include Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis), Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina), Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) and Dyer’s Woodruff (Asperula tinctoria). Wild Madder appears very similar to Common Madder but is evergreen and grows wild in South West England and South Wales. Lady’s Bedstraw is a lovely perennial wild flower with dense clouds of yellow flowers in July and August and surely deserves a place in the dye garden?

Rubia Peregrina

Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) found growing in a hedgerow near Brixham, Devon 2nd Jan 2017. Photo by Brian Bond.

It is said in the literature that these relatives of madder do not provide as much colour as Common Madder, primarily because the plants are harder to harvest and the roots are thinner. Even the common weed, Cleavers or Goosegrass (Galium aparine) is said to contain similar pigments to Common Madder although its thin roots are unlikely to yield enough for true reds.

A further article based on the book “Madder Red” by Robert Chenciner will be posted later in the spring when I’ll be looking at the history of growing madder and its lessons for the craft grower.

Bibliography

Ecotone Threads (another really good blog post on growing Madder by Kori Hargreaves in California).

Chenciner, R. (2000) Madder Red: A history of luxury and trade Curzon, Caucasus World

Sandberg, G. (1996) The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple, Lark Books

Cardon, D. (2007) Natural Dyes, Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science, Archetype Publications London

[1] Sadigheh, S. et al (2009), Study Methods of Dormancy Breaking and Germination of Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum L. ) Seed in Laboratory Conditions, Botany Research International, 2 (1): 07-10  See http://www.idosi.org/bri/2(1)09/2.pdf