Growing American Pokeweed in the UK Phytolacca americana
By Ashley Walker Copyright 20th January 2020
First a warning. All parts of this plant are poisonous to humans and most animals except birds. It is also invasive so its growing must be carefully controlled.
I had heard a lot about this controversial dye plant, but in the UK it’s still much of a novelty. So when I spotted some plants growing in a greenhouse nursery in Devon in 2018 I “obtained” a berry containing a few seeds. I grew them last year (2019) just to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Three of my seeds sown in April germinated after about 2 weeks.
The three seedlings of American Pokeweed showing seed leaves and red stems
By June the plant in the greenhouse was already looking like a lush spinach plant.
The pink stemmed seedlings were very vigorous and had to be potted on after a few weeks. By the time I judged it was warm enough to plant out in May/June the plants were already around 10in high. My first observation was how similar they look to our native Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) despite belonging to a totally different plant family. Pokeweed is sometimes called American Nightshade and I think this is not just because of its toxic qualities.
Not taking any chances with late frosts I planted one of the plants in our greenhouse and the other two outside in the garden. The plant in the greenhouse grew with extraordinary rapidity, its reddish stem swelling out to more than 2 inches in diameter. By the Autumn it had escaped through the window in the greenhouse roof reaching 7ft. An extraordinary “triffid” of a plant! Outdoors the plants did not do so well only growing to about 4ft.
By October the plant had escaped though the greenhouse window and was threatening to take over the whole greenhouse.
The pink flower stems are quite attractive.
The berries of American Pokeweed start as green then turn pink and finally black at which point they are ready to be used to dye.
This photo shows the other variety of Pokeweed with short “club like” racemes of berries. Spotted growing at Bell House.
A slightly out of focus shot of the mature American pokeweed plant growing in the Horniman’s museum dye plant garden showing short upright racemes of ripe berries.
There are several cultivars of pokeweed available commercially – the chief difference between them appears to be the shape of the flower and berry racemes. In one type the racemes are short, upright and club-like (sometimes given a separate species name P. rigida) and in the more decorative type they are long, thin and pendulous. The plant is a herbaceous perennial native to North America which can reach 10ft in a single season before dying back to the ground during the winter.
Our variety is the one with long thin pendulous racemes. Later in the year we found plants of the other variety growing at the Horniman museum dye garden in Forest Hill, South London and in the gardens at Bell House, Dulwich. At Bell house it grows as a weed which demonstrates how invasive it can be.
Once the berries had ripened and turned black I picked a few racemes and test dyed on a small piece of alum mordanted wool yarn. Internet advice indicates that the best method is to make a dye bath from several times the weight of fibre to be dyed in berries, heated with the strongest acetic acid you can get hold of. I had some 10% acetic acid left which I bought to fumigate an old bee hive. At this strength the vapour alone can rust steel so caution is required. Distilled white vinegar is probably the next best thing. The yarn quickly took a very pleasing bright red colour (much quicker and easier than madder) but the big question was how long would it last? Some dyers say it can last years and others say it fades within a matter of weeks. I hung up my sample in the window with half of it covered in foil to keep the light out.
After about 80 days I took it down and had a good look at it. The wool exposed to the daylight had indeed faded with the side facing the outside more faded than the side facing inwards. What is more the red is fading to a disappointing brown (in the photo it looks more orange than it actually is). The window is incidentally a north facing one so it would presumably fade even quicker in direct sunlight. The covered part of the sample still shows a good red. From experience of other fugitive plant dyes I would guess that textiles dyed with pokeberry could be made to last a few years if kept in the dark and only worn intermittently indoors. But I’m not sure it’s worth it. When freshly dyed the colour is fabulous and I’m sure that when the native Americans used it to dye their ponies they made a glorious (and terrifying) sight. But coupled with the potential hazards of growing the plant I think that its continued inclusion in our dye garden is in the balance. Susan is all for eradicating it immediately so it’s on borrowed time!
The upper part of this wool yarn sample was exposed to light in a North facing window for 80 days. The lower part which was wrapped in foil remains a good red while the exposed part has faded to brown (in this photo brown looks more orange than it really is.
This photo (taken indoors shows the side of the yarn that was facing the window which has suffered the most fade.
This side of the wool yarn was facing inwards and has suffered less fade. The bottom part was covered in tin foil and has suffered little or no fade.
The plants growing outside managed to resist light frosts but have since died back to the ground. By January the plant protected from the frost in the greenhouse still has green leaves. Information on the web says that the plant mainly reproduces by seed (which can remain fertile for 50 years) but it can also shoot from the roots. There is no doubt that my greenhouse plant has produced many long side roots and the plant is clearly making a bid to take over the whole thing. No doubt the phenomenal growth uses up a lot of soil nutrients too.
On balance I think that where pokeweed grows wild (in North America) and berries can be obtained in quantity via foraging, it can be a fast, fugitive and fun plant dye, but as a dye plant in the UK it’s probably not worth planting it, not when a good permanent red can be got from madder.
Additional information on Pokeweed can be found here:
Scan of page 62 of Traditional Scottish Dyes by Jean Fraser showing entry on Devil’s Bit Scabious.
Reference to Devil’s Bit Scabious from Chemical Dictionary of Economic Plants
Some years ago I came upon a reference to this bee-friendly and pretty blue flower being a potential source of blue dye in Jean Fraser’s book “Traditional Scottish Dyes and how to make them”. Jean attributed her information source to Ethel Mairet. In her 1916 “Book on Vegetable dyes” Ethel briefly mentioned that Devil’s Bit Scabious leaves, if treated like Woad, will give a blue colour but adds no further details. A quick internet search brought up a number of other references to this plant producing either a blue or green dye. Significantly an entry in “Chemical Dictionary of Economic Plants” (2001) edited by Jeffrey B. Harborne, and Herbert Baxter, states that fibres placed in an alkaline fermentation bath of the leaves will turn blue on exposure with the air, though the active chemical is not identified as indigo. Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) a member of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) and a related plant is Teasel (Dipsacus), which in turn is also mentioned as a source of blue dye – being apparently produced by dried flower heads.
At the time I was looking out for possible dye plants that had flowers that weren’t yellow, as this would make our dye garden a little more attractive to the eye. I am also a beekeeper and Devil’s Bit Scabious was being promoted as one of the most pollinator-friendly native flowers, so I set about obtaining some seed. I was disappointed however to find that although you can buy the seed it has very poor viability. My first attempt resulted in no germinations and the second attempt only produced 5 plants out of around 500 seeds. In the end I bought some plants from the Rosy Bee plant nursery and planted them in the dye garden where they have positively thrived. Finally (3 years later) I had enough plant material to try extracting the blue dye.
Basal leaves of Devil’s Bit Scabious which bear close resemblance in both size, colour and shape to Woad leaves.
All references to the extraction process say that the basal leaves should be used and that they should be treated just like Woad i.e. placed in an alkaline fermentation bath (possibly the urine bath). I was not happy about using urine, so instead opted for Jenny Dean’s recipe for hot extraction of indigo from Woad using ammonia as the alkali. In addition, I did a more conventional dye extraction by simmering the leaves for 1 hour and straining the liquor; then dyeing mordanted wool yarn in a heated dyebath with and without adding soda ash to raise the pH. Finally I set up a solar dyeing jar with leaves, wool yarn and some soda ash to make the liquid alkaline and set it aside in a warm place to ferment.
Jenny Dean’s indigo from Woad extraction
After pouring boiling water over the leaves and leaving for an hour and straining, I obtained a pale yellow liquid.
Pale yellow liquid extract.
Adding the ammonia turned liquid a dark green.
Colour change after adding Thiourea Dioxide to the green liquid.
There was no sign of any free indigo nor the characteristic sherry colour from Woad. The next stage, adding the alkali and aerating was exciting because the liquid quickly went a lovely dark green, exactly as one might expect if there was indigo in there. I had my hopes up now for the first time! The next stage was to add a reducing agent and for speed I used a tiny amount of Thiox (Thiourea Dioxide). The colour of the liquid immediately changed to an orangey yellow – too fast for the normal indigo process.
Unmordanted raw wool yarn vs unmordanted dipped yarn. Left: raw wool; Right: dipped wool.
But I put in some un-mordanted wool yarn anyway and waited. I took the yarn out but obtained no discernible change in colour at all. Disappointment! I did several dips and left the yarn in for about 15 minutes, then did more dips, but sadly there was no colour change.
After drying, the wool does look slightly altered but it’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to see any blue.
Later, I took some of the original green coloured liquid which had the alkali added and neutralized it with some distilled vinegar. The colour instantly changed back to yellow, indicating pretty conclusively that there was no indigo in it.
lowering the pH of the green liquid with vinegar brings it back to an orange yellow.
Mordanted wool yarn dyed in liquid extract before alkali was added.
Alum mordanted wool gave a pale straw yellow with no hint of green. Dyeing time ½hour.
Iron mordanted wool, unexpectedly, gave a rather nice slightly warm grey. Dyeing time 15mins.
Colours obtained with three different mordants after leaving in alkaline Devil’s Bit Scabious dye bath over night.
After adding the soda ash, the liquid darkened off as expected to a greeny yellow though not as green as when using ammonia. Wool samples mordanted with alum, iron and copper were introduced and, after rinsing in clean water, produced a similar set of colours after about ½ an hour. At this point I decided to leave the samples in overnight. In the morning the alum mordanted sample was much the same but the iron mordanted sample had turned from grey to a warm brown. The copper mordanted wool was an attractive greenish bronze. Depth of colour had not increased during the night. Rinsing the yarn removed the green tint of the dye bath.
The acute sensitivity to pH tells me that the chemicals producing the green colour in the alkali extract are not dyes and will not even attach to mordanted wool. The grey and light brown colours obtained with mordanted wool suggests that there are natural tannins in the leaves and also a yellow dye. The entry in the “Chemical Dictionary of Economic Plants” says the active dye chemical is a seco-iridoid glucoside. Internet searches suggest that these molecules protect the plant from predators and pathogens and are of interest for their anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and possible anti-cancer properties. I did find a reference to an iridoid called genipin which in a weak acid is reported to produce a soluble blue pigment in the presence of oxygen with potential as a food colourant. But to obtain this blue pigment seems to require a chemical laboratory! And there appears to be no logical chemical link to the indigo molecule.
I speculate that the mythical blue colour is one of those confusions that get passed from one source to another without anyone really testing it out. If by some miracle there is a blue dye to be had it is not indigo. Possibly someone at some point mistakenly put Woad leaves into a bath of Devil’s Bit Scabious, they are remarkably similar in shape and size. Or perhaps someone just assumed that since the blue/green was obtained in an alkaline bath identical to a Woad leaf extraction bath then they must be the same dyes.
Hopefully this solar dye jar experiment is about as close as I can get to the original assertion that Devil’s Bit Scabious fermented in an alkaline liquid will give blue.
The results of the solar dye experiment will take some time. I think it is unlikely there will be any blue or green but we will see.
One further thought, there could be a bit of a pattern developing here, searching for a blue from Elecampane root (see blog post) I discovered a rather nice grey could be obtained. Here again I get another grey. Perhaps this is more evidence that the colour grey was often referred to as blue in earlier days.
Well, I’m keeping the Devil’s Bit Scabious in the Dye garden. It really is a fantastic pollinator-friendly plant and it looks good too.
For a further addition to this story please look at Leena Riihelä’s blog post on the subject where Leena has a recipe for getting green written by the famous botanist Carl Linnæus.
This year I’ve had two reports of people in the UK growing Japanese Indigo from our seeds and experiencing premature flowering in May. I also read with interest Deb McClintock’s blog post about her early self-seeded Japanese Indigo (in mid-Texas in the USA) which germinated in early February and flowered in May. In the first two cases the plants were not remotely big enough to harvest, so this is very disappointing – doubly so since once the plants put out flower heads the amount of indigo in the leaves starts to decrease. Deb McClintock was able to harvest her “bonus crop” but she noted that it had not grown as well as her normal summer crop. Ideally the plants should grow to a large size before flowering in August/September.
So what is going on and what can be done to prevent this?
In all plants, flowering is often stimulated by the experience of stress e.g. unnaturally high or low temperatures, insufficient water or nutrients and pest damage. However, in the above examples the plants were being treated very well. My first thought was that the main cause of the early flowering was day length. In all three cases the Japanese Indigo seeds germinated in January/February when the day length is short. However, I can’t rule out low temperatures since this is the middle of winter in the UK (latitude=50deg N) and the night-time temperature in Mid Texas is going to get pretty low. Also in the UK in 2019 we experienced a Spring with extreme temperature swings and unusually late frosts.
I can find no definitive information online to suggest that low temperature is a known trigger for flowering in Japanese Indigo. But looking in my copy of ‘Handbook of Natural Colorants’ I see that day length is reported as the critical factor for Japanese Indigo, but other influences are not excluded. However it does say that Chinese Woad (Isatis indigotica) will flower if it experiences night time temperatures below 10°C (50°F).
In all three reports of early flowering, the plants received no artificial lighting and were grown in relatively frost free conditions, although they probably did experience night time temperatures well below 10°C. But of course the day length conditions in mid-Texas are considerably less variable than in the UK. (Mid-Texas latitude is approx. 35 degrees North compared to approx. 50 Degrees North here in Southern England).
The Handbook of Natural Colorants recommends sowing Japanese Indigo in April in mid Europe, with a first harvest in July or early August just before the flower heads start to form. It’s interesting to note that by this point in our summer, the day length has started to shorten but night-time temperatures are usually still over 15°C (60°F), so that should rule out cold temperatures as a trigger and points the finger at shortening day length.
However, my own observations in Hitchin for 2018 is that flowering was very late (September/October) following an exceptionally hot long Summer and warm Autumn. This is a much later flowering than normal. This is confusing because it suggests that the high temperatures prevent day length from being the dominant factor in triggering flowering. No doubt someone out there (perhaps the professional Japanese Indigo farmers) will know the definitive answer but at the present time I’m not sure if it is short day-length or temperature stress which is the most important trigger for flowering. But in either case the solution is the same.
In Southern England, no matter how warm the early Spring, don’t be tempted to sow your Japanese Indigo seeds before April, unless you are able to give them some artificial light to lengthen their day. Giving them a little warmth (particularly at night) is a good idea too. If the plants do start flowering early, pinching out the whole top of the plant may reset them back to vegetative growth. If the plants are large enough it may also work to take stem cuttings in water (cut out the flowering tips). If these measures fail, new seeds can still be sown as late as June in the South of England.
In my own case, I use heated seed trays and artificial lighting on a timer.
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.
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.
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
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 pot with seedlings of Field Madder.
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!
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.
Clumps of feathery green Ladies Bedstraw growing by the greenhouse.
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.
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
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.
A mass of tiny self-seeded Weld seedlings in the dye garden
Self-seeded Dyers Chamomile seedlings
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:
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.
Keep your garden weed free.
Dig your garden sparingly, preferably in the Autumn or Winter.
Learn to recognise dye plant seedlings.
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).
Try and control slugs and snails. (I recommend organically approved slug bait [Iron phosphate] as a last resort).
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.
3 varieties of Japanese Indigo at three weeks from sowing.
We have found something that eats madder.
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.
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.
UPDATE 9 May 2019
Thank you everyone! We have been overwhelmed by the interest shown in this first pilot workshop. If you would like to be added to a waiting list in case anyone drops out, or if you would like us to alert you about future courses, please get in touch.
We will post about how the workshop goes after 1st June.
Creating a planting plan for beginner dye gardeners, with tips from Susan and Ashley of Nature’s Rainbow. What plants to grow, when to plant, when to harvest, how to maintain the garden.
We have been growing and using dye plants in the historic town of Hitchin for over 14 years.
Help us to design future workshops to share our expertise.
5 places available. Contact us via this blog for further details and how to book.
£20 nominal fee required in advance to confirm your place.
This is a very reduced rate to recognise the fact that the views and feedback from the people attending will be helping to design a future workshop for Nature’s Rainbow.
Participants will have a tour of an established dye garden (as featured in The Journal of Weavers Spinners and Dyers https://www.journalwsd.org.uk/article/the-dye-plant-garden and hear how we manage the mix of annual, biennial and perennial plants within the constraints of our site. We’ll structure the session loosely, so we can maximise the flow of info between us all.
Seeds and perennial root cuttings of madder and small dyer’s broom plants to take away.
In exchange, you need to be willing to provide feedback and ideas on how to design future workshops and bring a simple sketch of your growing space, marking up sunny and shady areas and soil type.
Our house and dye garden is a very short walk from Hitchin Station, with frequent services on the Great Northern train line between Kings Cross, Cambridge and Peterborough. Please contact us
Susan and I have long been fans of Michel Garcia’s DVDs on natural plant dyes and pigments. So we were excited and delighted when we got an email before Christmas from Slow Fiber Studios asking to use some of our dye plant photographs for a new DVD:
Using metallic salts of Aluminium, Iron or Copper for mordanting is controversial in craft plant dyeing as these are all toxic to some extent, both to humans and other forms of life. If used and disposed of with care, the risks can be reduced [See Carrie Sundra’s blog] but many people choose to avoid using metal-based mordants completely.
As a result there has been growing demand to find safer alternative “bio mordants”. Promising plant substances include Myrobalan, various tannins, Curcumin (from turmeric) and Lawson (from henna). In this latest DVD Michel Garcia addresses this gap in current knowledge and shows how to dye and print without using metal mordants.
Slow Fiber’s DVDs are packed with information and can be watched over and over again. They are aesthetic, gentle, informative and a perfect antidote to a stressful world. A friend, Aviva Leigh from Norfolk was the first to introduce us to their work. She says the mark of a true plant dyeing friend is someone with whom you can, with eager anticipation, settle down for an evening of re-watching Michel and Yoshiko’s DVDs, just as others would watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster! The films are soul-food for the craft plant dyer.
It’ll be very exciting to see plants from our dye garden (our babies!!) on screen!
This book has now been released for sale (January 2019).
Catharine Ellis is a weaver, dyer and author of international repute based in North Carolina. She specialises in systematic experiments in her craft and teaches through Slow Fiber Studios. Many readers will be familiar with Catharine’s excellent website (see here). Joy Boutrup, from Denmark, lectures in textile technology for fashion design and for museum conservation. Both women have longstanding and impressive careers in their respective fields.
It’s our feeling that both the DVD and this book will be landmark publications, marking a step-change in the systematic knowledge available to the craft plant dyer. So don’t be put off by the prices (Beyond Mordants $52, The Art and Science of Natural Dyes $60).
In our own small way, we hope that the observations that inform our blog are a useful information source, and it’s free! But essentially we provide small snippets of data. Collecting all of that information together into a structured form, providing an expert overview and binding it into a professionally referenced book or instructional DVD takes time and money.
It is my hope that one day I will have amassed enough information about growing dye plants to make it possible to write a book on the subject myself but it will take many more years of growing, observation and experimentation to get to that point.
I can only imagine how much work has gone into the two publications above. Even though I haven’t seen them at the time of writing, I feel confident to recommend them. They are the work of leading experts in the field and I for one can’t wait to get my hands on them!
In our 2016 post on Growing Dyers Coreopsis (see here) I mentioned that this annual dye plant was considered to be hardy and could be grown as a biennial (seed sown in first year for flowering in second year). I can now confirm this to be true.
Last year we noticed some self-seeded coreopsis growing in pots in the early spring. They had reached quite a size so must have started growing in the late Autumn of the previous year and somehow survived the winter. They went on to produce very attractive early flowers. This year we have some further self-seeded coreopsis plants growing in some of the pots in our back garden which I’ve been keeping an eye on to see how they are weathering the winter. Two nights ago we had a hard frost (about -3°C) and the plants looked quite frozen the following day and stayed that way until another night had passed when they thawed out again. The plants have appeared to recover well (see photos).
Frosted Dyers Coreopsis plant 20th Jan 2019
Two days later on 22nd Jan 2019 the plant has thawed out without any significant damage. What damage you can see has been caused by slugs and snails.
I should not be surprised of course as these plants grow in the North American plains where frost at night in the spring and harsh winters will be a feature of the climate. I suppose that what did surprise me was that left to their own devices the seeds will germinate in Autumn and survive much harsher winters than we get here in the UK. They are after all quite delicate looking plants. This particular plant has a long stem and possibly would not survive a heavy fall of snow but some of the coreopsis we grow have short stems and go through a rosette stage which is an adaptation to over wintering.
Autumn germination does explain why we do not get much self-seeding in our dye garden. Many of the seeds probably do germinate then (when I’m not really paying attention) and are quickly chewed up by slugs and snails which are abundant at this time of year. Only a few seeds are left to germinate in the spring and they too have to run the risk of being eaten.
When we first started growing coreopsis we had no self-seeded plants for many years but in the last few years there has always been a few so I assume the “seed bank” in the soil has reached a level where there are enough spring germinating seeds to ensure some survive. The plants I noticed overwintering are all growing in pots where they do get some protection from the rampaging molluscs – even so you can see by the photos that they have been nibbled.
Self Seeded and overwintered Dyers Coreopsis in flower in Early July 2018.
So my advice for other growers who desire the stunning displays of coreopsis earlier in the year is to sow seed in the Autumn in an area of garden that you can easily protect from slugs and snails. My plants have survived -3°C but I do not know the lowest temperature they could survive in so if you are in an area that gets prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures I would also make sure your plants are at least partially protected by placing them near to a warm house or growing in a greenhouse or cold frame.
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
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
Ladies Bedstraw in flower
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
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
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.
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
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 and Alder Buckthorn roots are quite different. Black roots of Purging on left and red roots of Alder on right.
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
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
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.
Currently the main method of indigo extraction in use on internet Facebook pages is the 2 -3 day long soak in water. I believe this was the main method used commercially in the days before synthetic indigo wiped out the western market for natural indigo. Originally used to extract indigo from Indigofera tinctoria it is still used for small scale production in South Asia. The method is now used for Japanese indigo presumably because the traditional Japanese Method of composting the leaves is too large scale and time consuming for craft dyers. So it has been with some bafflement that I’ve seen the rise of this soaking method as I have always followed the Jenny Dean method which is even quicker.
We were introduced to plant dyeing through the pages of Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour” and have used her recipe from this book for many years. It involves heating the leaves and can be done in two hours. Since we started to use this recipe we have tweaked it somewhat, discovering that there is no need to heat the leaves over 75 to 80°C to get maximum extraction. Another wrinkle is the need to allow the heated leaves to cool fairly rapidly. Large containers holding 20+ litres tend to cool too slowly and the indigo can be damaged. We did try one experiment when we cooled the extraction bath artificially but that was too quick and the results were very poor. An ideal extraction would be to heat about 1kg of leaves in 5 to 10 litres of water to 75°C and allow it to cool naturally over an hour. In our climate it will fall to around 40°C or less during that time.
So, now to the experiment which was a bit slap dash, but I am sure that it was systematic enough to have fairly good validity for a home dyer.
I picked just over 2kg of fresh Japanese Indigo of the Long Leaf variety which was showing no signs of any flower buds. This was divided into 2 lots of 1026g.
Long Leaf Japanese Indigo showing leaf curl – a result of prolonged hot sunny weather.
Hot Soak Method (based on Jenny Dean)
Once batch of leaves was added to a large pan with about 8 litres of cold tap water (20°C) and then gradually heated with constant stirring to 75°C. This took exactly one hour and at the end the leaves had lost all of their fresh green tint and had turned almost black. The water was a very dark grey (a lot darker than usual in fact and I attribute this to a higher than normal amount of indigo in the leaf – a result of the weeks and weeks of hot sunny weather we have had this summer).
The leaves were then left to soak for one more hour, after which there was an indigo bloom at the surface and the water had darkened further. The leaves were removed (by straining through old tights) and 4 tablespoons of household ammonia were added with an immediate colour change to dark yellow/green. The liquid was then oxygenated by pouring from bucket to bucket about 20 times during which the liquid darkened to a green black. A small quantity of the liquid (viewed from above in a white plastic cup) looked olive green.
Comparison of Hot and cold indigo extraction after 1 hour of soaking but before straining.
Cold Soak Method
The second batch of leaves was placed in a plastic bucket filled with about 8 litres of hot tap water (57°C). I used hot water because I did not wish to wait more than 24 hours. At this temperature the leaves become slightly cooked and release cell contents into the water quicker. The bucket was then set aside for 24 hours. After 1 hour the temperature had fallen to 44°C, the leaves were still quite green and the liquid was much paler and bluer than the hot extraction at the same stage. See image above.
After 24 hours the leaves were still greenish, although they had darkened somewhat. There was a lot of indigo scum on the top leaves. The liquid was grey with a blue tint. The plastic bucket was stained blue. Generally the results so far looked good, with much more blue visible than in the Jenny Dean method.
Cold indigo extraction after 24 hours. Lots of indigo bloom on leaves.
After leaves are removed, alkali (ammonia) added and liquid aerated.
Comparison of colour of water after extraction.
Colour of leaves after cold soak for 24 hours.
Empty plastic bucket used for 24 hour cold soak now stained with indigo.
The leaves were removed and about 4 tablespoons of household ammonia were added and the colour immediately changed to yellow green. The liquid was then oxygenated, by pouring back and forth between buckets about 20 times. During this process the liquid darkened until it was nearly black. A small quantity looked blue/green.
Both extracts were then heated at the same time in separate pans to 50°C, the ideal temperature for dyeing wool, and spectralite reducing agent (thiourea dioxide, thiox) was added (one and a half teaspoons) to each pan. They were then left for about 2 hours to give ample time for the indigo to be reduced. The pots were then reheated to 50°C and an identical skein of wool (Corriedale) was added to each. Both pots were then gently stirred to promote even dyeing and the skeins were removed after 20 minutes.
Initially the colour of the skein from the Jenny Dean (hot) method looked darker but on drying no difference could be detected.
Test dye showing relative strengths of dye bath from Hot and Cold extracted indigo.
The amount of indigo extracted appears to be the same for both methods. However, heating, cooking and stirring the leaves increased the amount of fine particulate plant material in the liquid which increased the amount of sludge in the bottom of the dye bath.
I should clarify I don’t use lime (as a combined alkali and flocculating agent) to obtain a dried indigo pigment from my dyeplants. Any indigo I don’t use straightaway for dyeing, I store as liquid sludges. But I can see that for people who do use lime, the cold soak is advantageous because the resulting indigo pigment would contain fewer impurities than the hot soak because the liquid extract after straining is purer. For myself I’m quite happy to continue using my modified Jenny Dean process as it is fast and reliable.
Out of interest I also decided to compare the Long Leaf Japanese Indigo to Woad. I processed a similar quantity of Woad leaf according to the 24 hour soak method in the experiment. Another wool skein was dyed in nearly identical conditions and the results prove to me that Woad can actually produce more indigo than Long Leaf Japanese Indigo.
Comparison of strength of indigo extracted from Long Leaf Japanese Indigo and Woad.
A note on alkalis
There has been a lot of controversy about which alkalis produce the best results. I have tried most of them and found that what is important is the pH not the exact chemical used to get there. Washing soda is the weakest and produces very poor results. Household ammonia is excellent and relatively safe, provided you don’t get it on your skin or breathe it in. Calcium hydroxide (lime) is good and has the added benefit of soaking up the indigo precipitate and settling it to the bottom fast (flocculation). Sodium hydroxide is also good but is very corrosive – a danger to skin and textile.
Whenever using strong alkalis you must take safety precautions: wear gloves; avoid splashes; don’t ever add water to dry alkaline powders or granules, add the powder to water; label colourless solutions and store safely; never leave sodium hydroxide solutions unattended for curious animals or children to explore (it is colourless and odourless and very corrosive indeed).
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
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.
A cluster of Large White butterfly eggs on the underside of a woad leaf
Shiny black small Flea Beatles can slowly chew their way through a woad leaf leaving it like a sieve.
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
Chinese Woad – about as big as it gets before flowering
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
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.
A bed of intermediate White flowering Japanese Indigo.
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 tinctorum
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?
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
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
Saw-Wort plants with yellowing of leaves.
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.
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.
Bumble bee on single type dahlia grown from seed.
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
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
Perennial coreopsis – plant breeders benefitting the plant dyer.
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?
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 “Anchusabracteolata, 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!
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.