A Sence of Herbs

WhatâEUR(TM)s the madder?

WhatâEUR(TM)s the madder?

July 25, 2005|by Dorry Baird Norris

This week, I had to deal with a derious madder.

The madder in question is Rubia tinctorium, a sprawling, prickly-stemmed plant, esteemed by our ancestors as a source of red dye.

The name itself is a dead giveaway - any time you see see rubia or its variations, you know the plant is red. In the case of madder, the root is red. Tinctorium indicates that the plant was used for a dye.

Our madder plant grows vigorously by the chimney on the south side of the house. It thrives in that sunny, well-drained spot, producing a thicket of 6- to 8-foot stems that sprawl over the dye-plant bed and into the nearby forsythia.


This week, it needed to to be cut back, a task I approached gingerly. I am careful to wear long sleeves, since contact with the rough stems is sure to cause a rash.

I ruthlessly cut back the stems to a modest 2 feet. Cowering beneath the stems, tipped with tiny, yellow, star-shaped flowers, a favorite iris is freed from its blanket of madder. So is a flattened dyer's broom. An army of lamb's quarter seedlings is revealed. These weeds are quickly dispatched with a few swipes of the hoe.

Some sources suggest harvesting madder roots after the first year; others recommend digging them after three years. I'm opting for the three, when the roots can be as large in diameter as a pencil.

This fall, I'll dig and scrub them carefully, then dry them. Once dried, they can be pounded into a powder. No easy task, since the dried, thick, fleshy roots are very tough. The stems and long slender leaves also can be used for dying but produce a paler color.

I would be delighted to share the dried roots with any of you out there who are into natural dyes.

Once all of the old roots are dug, several will be saved to re-plant the bed.

In "A Weaver's Garden" (Interweave Press, 1987), a well-researched handbook for anyone who wants to grow and dye their own fibers, Rita Buchanan notes that Lady's bedstraw and dyer's bedstraw also produce red dye, but a less satisfactory one.

Properly prepared madder was one of the ingredients used in the complicated process that created the brilliant Turkey Red dye that gave old textiles a special brilliance. It may be madder dye that made British redcoats' coats red (an Oliver Cromwell innovation for the line troops, circa 1664.)

For the home dyer, alum is the most common mordant for madder. A mordant is a chemical compound applied to fibers to increase the intensity and fastness of dyes.

The commercial use of madder was phased out when, in Germany in 1868, Graebe and Liebermann realized that the essential dye element, alizarin, was also contained in coal tar. They developed a procedure for making the red dye synthetically which was produced commercially from 1871 onwards.

The oldest textiles dyed with madder to date come from the grave of a Merovingian queen near Paris (A.D. 565-570) Despite the fact that red stood for magic as well as vigorous action, anger and blood - and, in Christian church circles, for martyrdom - the plant seems to have left no specific trail in the folklore of the ancients.

In ancient times, madder was used medicinally in the treatment of jaundice, obstruction of the spleen, melancholy, palsy, hemorrhoids, sciatica and bruises. Roots and leaves were crushed and put on freckles and other discolorations of the skin.

Back in my garden, having dispatched the encroaching madder, I was free to enjoy the star of the garden this week - the blackberry lily.

The blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis) is a treasure trove of interest. Its stiff, sword-like leaves are arranged as in a fan, from whose base a sturdy stalk with many branches emerges. The six-petaled, orange flowers, spotted with red, sit on the forked stems like butterflies. The flowers curl up like corkscrews as they fade and an oval three- compartment pod begins to form at its base. In time, the pod will split open to show a crop of blackberry-like seeds from which the plant gets its name.

Blackberry lilies seem immune to pests, grow in sun or partial shade, aren't particular about soil fertility, they re-seed themselves and are interesting and beautiful!

All in all, blackberry lilies are a perfect addition to your garden. And unlike the madder, they don't have to be wrestled into submission.

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