Category Archives: Purging Buckthorn

Field Madder plant showing tiny pink four petaled flowers

Natures Rainbow Garden Update – Spring 2019

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 8th May 2019

The weather here has followed the pattern of recent springs by being dry, sunny and warm with cold intervals and frosty nights. Planting out of the Japanese indigo will have to wait for a week or two yet but most plants are thriving. Time to look at last year’s plantings and make an assessment of what has worked and what has not. Last year we embarked on growing a number of new plants, many of which are relatives of Common Madder. Of course many folks have said “What on earth are you doing that for? There is no better plant than Common Madder!” That of course is true but in the past many of these madder relatives were used as dye plants and prized for their colours so we thought we’d try and find out for ourselves how easy they are to grow and eventually what colours their roots will yield.

Wild Madder Rubia peregrina

We first started with Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) three years ago now. Spring frosts have been particularly hard on the plants as their evergreen upper leaves are not particularly frost hardy.

Browned and crisped frost damaged evergreen leaves of Wild madder, Rubia peregrina.

Frost damaged evergreen leaves of Wild Madder.

Their native UK homelands are the southern coastline of Devon, Cornwall and Wales where they get warm sea breezes that usually prevent frosts, so here in Hertfordshire they are a bit out of their depth. However the roots are protected and soon shoot back once the warm weather returns. Getting a good harvest from the plant is going to take time, even without frosts it’s very slow growing so we’re not planning to dig any up until Autumn this year.

Shoot of Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum) showing browned shoot as a result of frost damage.

For the first time in many years our Common Madder shoots were badly frosted. Not a problem as the plants quickly produce new shoots

Even our Common Madder beds were badly affected by the frosts with many of the new shoots being crisped.

Field Madder Sherardia arvensis & Hedge Bedstraw Galium mollugo

Field Madder Sherardia arvensis A cushion of Field Madder growing under a Weld plant with Sawort to the left. This plant self seeded last year and has come through the winter without any frost or snow damage.

A cushion of Field Madder growing under a Weld plant with Sawort to the left. This plant self seeded last year and has come through the winter without any frost or snow damage.

Generally described as an annual weed, we discovered that given plenty of attention this plant is perfectly capable of going through the winter and withstanding any frosts. Does this make it a short lived perennial? Many hardy annuals can do this and provided they are watered and fed can keep on growing. As this plant has very thin roots, getting a harvest is obviously going to be a bit of a test so we’ve decided to do a little experiment by growing Field Madder and another similar relative Hedge Bedstraw Galium mollugo in large pots in a compost mix that should be easy to wash away from the roots at the end of the year.

Large plant pot containing seedlings of Field Madder Sherardia arvensis

Large pot with seedlings of Field Madder.

Hedge Bedstraw Galium mollugo

Large pot of Hedge Bedstraw seedlings.

Dyer’s Woodruff Asperula tinctoria

Over the winter I managed to get hold of some seeds from Rühlemann’s in Germany but unfortunately none of these have thus far germinated. As a native of the northern steppe lands of Europe and Asia this may mean they need vernalization. Some of the plants we obtained from Scottish plant nursery (Poyntzfield Herb Nursery)  died towards the end of last year. Plants placed in an ericaceous compost in tubs seemed to do better than those planted in the chalky soil of our Nature’s Rainbow dye garden. This goes against the generally accepted advice that the plant likes alkaline soils. However, It may be other factors were involved. All of our plants died back really quite early in the year and we were afraid they might die out altogether, but back they have come this Spring and they look quite healthy. They have reappeared at the edge of the planters, showing that last year they tried to expand by producing underground stems much like Common Madder. I guess that this means they are capable of also being quite invasive!

Feathery Green shoots of Dyers Woodruff Asperula tinctoria

New shoots of Dyer’s Woodruff in the alkaline soil of our dye garden.

Ladies Bedstraw Galium verum

This plant has done really well in a whole variety of settings and soil types. It’s also very well behaved with minimal spread. It looks good throughout the year, with pretty clumps of feathery foliage followed by a spray of small yellow flowers in the summer. With its historic interest as a bedding straw, its use in dyeing  and its versatility as an ornamental garden plant, I feel that this plant is a must for any dye garden.

Feathery green clumps of Ladies Bedstraw Galium verum growing next to the greenhouse.

Clumps of feathery green Ladies Bedstraw growing by the greenhouse.

Alder Buckthorn Rhamnus frangula & Purging Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica

Alder Buckthorn Rhamnus frangula. New shoot showing "alder " shaped leaves and blossom buds.

New growth of Alder Buckthorn.

New growth of Purging Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica

New growth of Purging Buckthorn.

We tried planting Alder Buckthorn, an acid soil loving shrub, in a variety of conditions. Those planted in ericaceous beds or tubs have done well but those planted out in a wild setting in the chalk soil here have suffered greatly, though it has to be said, the most damage was done by muntjac deer who clearly have a liking for it.
The Purging Buckthorn did less well, to my surprise. It’s not supposed to be fussy about soil type. No casualties, but the plants have not grown very much in the last year. Although it could be that this plant simply takes longer to get established. The new growth this year looks a lot better.

As yet the plants are too small to risk any harvesting but I suspect it is the Alder Buckthorn that will give the better dye.

Tibetan Madder Rubia Cordifolia (Indian Madder or Munjeet)

We are now the proud owners of one of these plants. Obtained from the German Herb nursery Rühlemann’s, this plant spent four and a half days in a box being transported across Europe, the English Channel and finally to our door and arrived in perfect condition! Many thanks to Rühlemann’s  for doing such a professional job of packaging it up, we have great admiration! The growing tips had faded a little during transit but greened up rapidly on exposure to light.
According to the literature these rather elegant looking plants should just be able to survive outside in the UK, though I’m not taking any chances until I’ve had a chance to propagate some cuttings.  At first sight it looks quite different to Common Madder but it has the same leaf whorls (but only 4 leaves to a whorl as opposed to Common Madder’s 4 to 6) and has hooks on the square and weak stems just like madder and cleavers. It obviously has the same growing strategy i.e. it clambers over other plants, holding on with its small hooks.

Tibetan Madder Rubia Cordifolia (Indian Madder or Munjeet)

The Munjeet plant about a week after arriving. Repotted to a larger pot and already starting to grow and looking very healthy indeed

Rubia Cordifolia plant just after delivery and repotting

Rubia Cordifolia plant just after delivery and repotting

We are ridiculously excited by this latest acquisition and look forward to see how it grows and what sort of dye giving roots it has. According to Cardon* its chief dye substance is munjistin which gives a very bright orange. Like common madder it also contains many other dye stuffs, including a very large range of yellow to red anthraquinones. Alizarin is present but only in small amounts so the overall light fastness is probably not as good. Cardon mentions that there are different varieties of cordifolia as well as a very closely related species (Rubia akane) that grows in Japan. Our plant is advertised as being from Tibet, so hopefully it will be able to cope with frost during the winter.

Self-seeding

Bed of hundreds of tiny self seeded Weld seedlings

A mass of tiny self-seeded Weld seedlings in the dye garden

Cota tinctoria

Self-seeded Dyers Chamomile seedlings

 

Madder Seedlings Rubia tinctorum

This year we have had a number of self-seeded Common Madder seedlings in planters positioned near the house. They have produced seedlings in the garden during the Autumn before now, but these usually die during the winter. I think the weather has been just right this year to encourage spring germination and the temperatures near the house have prevented any frost damage.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally a little note on self-seeding of dye plants. We have always tried to encourage plants to self-seed in our garden, with some success. We have been growing the plants for a long period now and the soil is loaded with seed. Weed plants have been under control for several years, so there should be nothing to stop those plants which can self-seed from doing so. So here’s a check list of what you need to do to follow suit:

  1. Allow your plants to flower and drop their seeds. This can produce, in some people’s eyes, an untidy garden but there are so many advantages including encouraging wildlife and saving your time growing the plants from seed and planting out every year.
  2. Keep your garden weed free.
  3. Dig your garden sparingly, preferably in the Autumn or Winter.
  4. Learn to recognise dye plant seedlings.
  5. Use mulch sparingly i.e. only on areas where you intend to plant out other plants. (Mulch supresses seed germination and encourages slugs and snails).
  6. Try and control slugs and snails. (I recommend organically approved slug bait [Iron phosphate] as a last resort).
  7. Water the bare soil if it becomes very dry.

Three varieties of Japanese Indigo Persicara tinctoria

Finally I have managed to sow all three varieties of Japanese indigo at the same time to complete our comparative studies (see blog post). Sure enough, it is possible to tell the difference between the long leaved variety and the broad leaf variety. Even the photos show the slight difference in foliage colour (the broad leaf being a more yellow green) and the long leaf plants are a centimetre or so taller. These plants are about 3 weeks old and grown under identical conditions. The intermediate variety more closely resembles the broad leaf.

Persicara tinctoria

3 varieties of Japanese Indigo at three weeks from sowing.

More Pests

We have found something that eats madder.

Rubia tinctorum pests

This is probably the caterpillar of the Orange Underwing moth, a known pest in the UK which eats a whole variety of plants. So we’re not surprised it’s had a go at our Common Madder. Fortunately there are not enough of them to do any real damage, but they do spoil the appearance of the plants. We can live with that, so no need to take any action.

Suppliers

Rühlemann’s herb nursery has an excellent collection of dye plants and seed for sale and don’t mind sending stuff to other European countries. Their service is excellent.

Poyntzfield Herb Nursery   Scottish herb nursery sells various dye plants and will sell Dyer’s Woodruff root cuttings. Recommended.

References

* Dominique Cardon, Natural Dyes : Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science   . The Definitive reference book of dye plants and dyeing. If you want to know what dye plants are native to the country you live in you will find the information here. A master work, expensive but worth every penny.

Our back garden

Natures Rainbow new plants 2018

The Natures Rainbow Garden 2018 – Part Two, New Plants

By Ashley Walker
Copyright August 2018

Introduction

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

Asperula tinctoria

Dyer’s Woodruff

Asperula tinctoria

Dyer’s Woodruff in flower

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

Galium verum

Ladies Bedstraw in flower

Galium verum

A clump of young Ladies bedstraw plants will grow into a cushion and then a carpet.

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

Sheradia arvensis

An agricultural weed, Field Madder, is a small creeping annual plant with thin roots.

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

Succisa pratensis

Rosettes of Devil’s Bit Scabious planted around an Alder Buckthorn sapling in a specially created acid soil bed. There are also some first year weld plants bottom right.

Succisa pratensis

Devil’s bit scabious flower

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

Frangula Alnus

Alder Buckthorn

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!

Rhamnus cathartica and Frangula alnus

Purging and Alder Buckthorn roots are quite different. Black roots of Purging on left and red roots of Alder on right.

Purging Buckthorn – Rhamnus cathartica

Rhamnus cathartica

Purging Buckthorn

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

Quercus velutina

Black Oak sapling

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

Rhus glabra

Smooth Sumac in flower

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.

References

Traditional Scottish Dyes  by  Jean Fraser

A book on vegetable dyes by Ethel M Mairet

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

Suppliers

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

Rubiaceae. Rubia tinctorum, Sheradia arvensis, Galium verum and Asperula tinctoria

Ladies Bedstraw intergrowing with Field Madder and Dyer’s Woodruff. Top left is some Common Madder.