Category Archives: Wild Madder

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

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.