An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2016
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a naturalised hardy biennial member of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family and was probably introduced into the UK from Europe. There are no close relatives in the UK but there is a similar plant from China called Chinese Woad (Isatis indigotica) which is primarily is grown as a medicinal plant but is also used as a source of indigo. Various web sources including Wikipedia assert that indigotica and tinctoria are botanically indistinguishable. I have recently obtained some Chinese Woad seeds from a German company (Rühlemann’s) so intend to find out the truth of the matter next year. Woad will grow up to four feet high and here in Hertfordshire it flowers in May. The flowers, like so many dye plants, are yellow and make a terrific show in spring.
Unfortunately Woad is classified as a noxious weed in many western states of the US so if you live in one of these states please find out what the restrictions are before you even consider growing it. Here in the UK although it has naturalized and self seeds readily it is not invasive and only tends to grow in disturbed ground. Seeing it in the wild is a rarity. I have been reading about its invasiveness in the US and I now understand that it can invade wild areas of the West with ease probably because these areas are similar in habitat to its native eastern European and Asian plains. It is now classified as a noxious weed in the following states Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. I have not found any reports of problems in the East of the US so would appreciate it if anyone who has any knowledge of this could let me know. Many thanks.
More information can be obtained from this short online document here. For really comprehensive information see here.
Woad generally produces masses of large seed “pods or cases” that are only viable for one year. These take a few months to mature and start falling or being blown to the ground by August. The seeds will then start to germinate as soon as the weather becomes wet (inhibitory chemicals in the seed case are washed away by rain). By late October/November new plants will have grown to a substantial size (big enough to harvest). Many seeds will not germinate until the following spring and a few of these will grow and flower in the same year. Those that do, will probably return to a rosette stage towards the end of summer which leads to the unusual sight of rosettes growing at the top of a long stem. Some second year plants will also survive flowering and also return to producing rosettes at the end of summer. These second year rosettes also produce indigo in the leaves.
There appears to be a great deal of phenotypic variation between Woad plants. There are big differences in leaf colour ranging from blue/green to pale yellow/green and leaf shape from toothed to smooth-edged. Because of this variability, Woad seedlings can be easily mistaken for weeds at first, especially if they have popped up in unexpected places. However, all Woad plants have a highly distinctive aroma, once smelt never forgotten! It seems likely that plants also differ in the amount of indigo they contain, so there is probably scope for plant breeders to improve the stock.
Woad seeds are only viable for one year so make sure that your seed is fresh. If you buy commercially available seeds there will only be a few tens of seeds in the packet I don’t recommend that you risk them by sowing direct. Sow well away from slugs and snails indoors or outdoors in early April. There is no need to heat the trays. Each winged seed case actually contains more than one seed and so can produce more than one seedling. The plants will grow quickly. Plant them out on a warm day in early May. There’s no need to wait until the last frost as they are hardy.
I have only ever needed to buy Woad seeds once. The plants produce thousands of seeds which will spread around the garden and germinate in mid to late summer. I collect a carrier bag full on a dry sunny day in late summer when the seeds have fully matured. They store well if kept dry. I sow them liberally onto a prepared bed the following April, where they germinate readily and then may need thinning out.
At the beginning, to avoid having to buy the seeds two years running, keep a few seeds to plant in October. Depending on conditions, if you are lucky some of these late sown plants will stay in the rosette stage long enough to providing a useful crop for dyeing in the summer of your second year.
The young seedlings produce long tap roots that can penetrate deep into the ground, so the plants rarely suffer from drought. However watering regularly will encourage growth. The larger the plants the more water they need.
Care and Attention
Woad, like Japanese Indigo needs copious quantities of fertiliser to get a good crop. Animal manure is excellent if you can get it. This is best dug into the top few inches of soil before sowing or planting out and will last the whole season. Woad generally does not suffer from many pests and only a few diseases. As a cabbage family plant it may suffer from club root when grown in acid soils, but I have not heard any reports to that effect. It occasionally attracts cabbage white butterfly and flea beetle but the damage to leaves is seldom serious. When grown densely it does attract the attention of a few species of slug and snail but again these do not threaten the plant’s success so there is little need to take protective action. For more on pests see here.
The amount of indigo in Woad leaves varies according to the weather and the plant’s developmental stage. The plant produces more indigo when the weather is hot and sunny but once the plant has started to produce flower stems in early Spring the amount of indigo in the leaves rapidly diminishes, falling to zero when the plant is in full flower. For this reason Woad is invariably harvested in the summer of its first year while still in a rosette stage. The leaves at this stage are thick, fleshy and give off Woad’s characteristic smell when bruised. The smell is not pleasant but it has such good associations for me that now I have come love it. It is sometimes possible to trick the plants into returning to their rosette stage by cutting the flower stalks before the seeds form. Once harvested, the leaves need to be used the same day. When Woad was grown commercially in the UK the leaves were crushed in a mill and the resulting mass shaped into balls which were then set aside to dry. Woad stored in this way loses some of its indigo.
Further information on Woad and Woad products can be obtained from:
The Woad Centre This is a web site by Ian Howard from Woad Inc the UK’s only commercial grower and processor of indigo from Woad.
A journey into the Blue Article by D.J.Hill
Bleu de Lectoure A Toulouse based company which also grows and produces indigo from Woad.