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Further information

Dye plants

Never think of natural dyes from plants as insipid greens, yellows and browns. Plants produce dyestuffs that give deep, vibrant colours to textiles, paper and wood. Natural dyes from plants, and from fungi and insects also, have been grown and used for thousands of years, but in our area they have never been major crops, and while some are wild plants that live in and around agriculture, the cultivated ones have rarely left ferals. There is little evidence for or against the cultivation of dye plants or the use of plant dyes in Scotland before the last few centuries. And while natural dyes are still part of  local practice and culture in many tropical and sub-tropical regions, they are no longer familiar here. The art and science of using natural dyes remains in some manufactures and craftwork, however. Both seed and dye materials can be bought from specialist suppliers.

The panel to the right shows (left, top to bottom) chopped madder roots, chopped weld stems, cochineal and logwood chips, and (right) the dyed wool hanks.

Dye plants

Perhaps the most widely known of the dye plants that can grow in our climate are woad, weld and madder, yielding blue, yellow and red colourings. The centres for production of all three in what is now the UK were in the Midlands or south of England. It is unlikely any were grown on a large scale in Scotland, but weld was present in Medieval Aberdeen, Perth and Elgin, while woad was imported for centuries and grown here locally in the 1800s (Dickson & Dickson). The history of the growing, import and use of these and other more exotic dyes shows time and again that early agriculturists and manufacturers were well connected by trade with many other countries. Thirsk describes the remarkable story of the attempts since medieval times to make commercial field crops from these plants.

Weld Reseda luteola, a native plant, is the only one of the three to grow locally. Its foliage is harvested to give the yellow dye. It has been found in Stone Age sites, though not in Britain. It was grown as a crop in the south and east of England, and sometimes sown with barley and oats, to be harvested the year after and the seed kept for the next crop (Grigson, Thirsk). Docklands, old industrial sites, airport runways and wasteland provide a refuge. The panel to the right shows its habitat in the cobbled walkways at Dundee docks. 

The madder most widely used as a dye is not the field madder Sherardia arvensis or the wild madder Rubia peregrina, which itself yields a pinkish dye, but Rubia tinctorum from central Asia.   The dye is extracted from its chopped roots. It seems to have been first grown more for medicinal use - noted in Norfolk in 1274 - than as a dye, but its development as an industrial crop from the 1600s had a turbulent history, as Thisk relates, until the crop receded following artificial manufacture of the dye in 1869.

The foliage of woad Isatis tinctoria yields the blue dye. The brief and informative essays on woad by Grigson and Dickson & Dickson point to the lack of evidence for the use of woad in ancient times, even by the Celts in Iron Age Britain and the Picts more recently. It had been imported as a cloth dye for centuries before it began to be developed as an industrial crop from the 1600s until (as Grigson says) 'the nineteen-thirties, when the two remaining woad-mills in Lincolnshire - the only two left in the world - were closed.' Competition from imported indigo was likely one of the causes (see below). Attempts to revive woad as a crop have continued up to the present. Woad is yet another of that most useful group of plants, the cabbage family (Brassicaceae, formerly Cruciferae). It appears occasionally as a feral plant, but very rarely so in Scotland.

Several dye plants have the specific name tinctoria or tinctorum (from tinctor, a dyer in Latin) and others share the specific officinalis with herbs and medicinals. Stern (1966) writes that officinalis is derived from the Latin for 'workshop or shop, later a monastic storeroom, then a herb-store, pharmacy or drug-shop.' Woad, weld and madder, with other dye plants, such as dyer's chamomile and coreopsis, are being grown in the Living Field garden.

Multi-purpose dye plants

Many of the dye plants have other uses.  It seems that once a plant is found useful for one thing, people look out for other things it can do for them. Several dye plants, including woad and madder, are reported to have medicinal properties, and as Thirsk writes, they may have been first grown more to supply the apothecaries than the dyers. Here are two other examples, indigo and rhubarb. 

Indigo is a dark blue verging to blue-black die from tropical species of the genus Indigofera, for example Indigofera tinctoria. It is a member of the large plant family that fixes nitrogen and additionally has reported medicinal properties. Burkhill writes (in 1935) 'There is no dye in the world of wider consumption and none more permanent. It has a very long history, the origins of which are wholly unknown. It was used in ancient Egypt for mummy clothes, dating some say from 2300 BC' (4300 years ago). He then relates the spread of indigo east to China and west to europe. Indigo appears in our story in the early 1600s, when its imports started to rival the woad industry in countries such as France and Britain. The woad cartels resisted (perhaps the events would be called the 'woad wars' these days) but woad lost, despite attempts to breed improved varieties with greater woad-bearing properties as late as the 1830s. 

Rhubarb is one of the most unappreciated plants. It thrived and thrives in many an allotment and garden. Boiled in a pan with sugar, then topped in a bowl with real custard, its diced leaf-stalks must have been one of the commonest puddings in Britain through much of the 1900s. The tuberous, fibrous tissue at the base of the leaf-stalks feels sticky and soapy when skinned and sliced, but when boiled for an hour so, and strained, yields a satisfying colour - a serious pastel-yellow. If that's not all, rhubard crumble has recently been found by Institute scientists to have potential anti-cancer properties.

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Dye plants in the Living Field Garden 2010-11

Following the success of 2010's exhibits on plant dyes, the the Living Field garden at Institute's Mylnefield Farm will plant up a section of the NE corner of the east garden in nspeing 2011 to hold the annual and perennial dye plants. Species include:

  • Anchusa officinalis, distinct from the local weed and wayside plant, Anchusa arvensis, the bugloss - blue from the roots
  • chamomile, yellow or dyer's, Anthemis tinctoria - yellow from the flowers
  • coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria - yellow, orange from the flowers
  • dyer's greenweed Genista tinctoria, a member of the broom family - yellow
  • golden rod, Solidago species - yellow from the flowers
  • madder, Rubia tinctorum - red from the roots 
  • tansy, Tanacetum vulgare - yellow from the flowers
  • weld, Reseda luteola - yellow from foliage
  • woad, Isatis tinctoria  - blue from foliage.

Dyes from these and other plant sources (for example, brazilwood, dock, old fustic, indigo, lichen, logwood, onion, rhubard, St John's wort, walnut) will be used during open days.

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Dyes from small animals

In his 'Botanical Latin', Stearn writes that the 'most celebrated of the ancient dyestuffs was Tyrian purple' relating that it comes from a small gland in certain marine molluscs (species of Murex) that ' secretes a viscid colourless fluid', which in the light turns yellow and green, then bluish red, becoming deep-blue violet in some species and scarlet in others, 'at the same time giving out a vile penetrating stench.' He continues that 'the dyers of antiquity made their most costly dye, the purple of imperial robes and aristocratic togas' from this animal, which (he writes) was not our purple but crimson. 8000 snails yielded one gram of dye. A lot of snails must have been spent to colour a big man's toga.

Stearn describes also another ancient dye extracted from 'oak-infesting coccid insects'  (species of Kermes) that live on oaks from southern Europe, including the cork oak and evergreen oak. He writes that 'the dye was obtained from the female insects swollen with eggs soon to hatch', and that the 'gravid females clinging to twigs of oak' were likened to a kind of berry (Latin coccus - see also coccineal below) or a small worm (a vermiculus). The generic name for the insect Kermes (Stearn relates) descends from a Persian word for worm (kerema). Hence we get vermilion (from vermiculus) and carmine (from kerema) for types of deep red. Astonishing how many colour-names come from the natural world.

Another carmine dye, cochineal, is extracted from the female of a scale insect, the cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), which feeds on, and is sometimes cultivated on, species of the cactus, Opuntia. The cochineal is still cultivated in some warm countries. The dye can be bought from specialist suppliers. 

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Bronze age colour and fashion

Never think either that all the people of past ages wore drab, dull clothes - the natural brown, grey and buff colours of hide, fibre and wool. Not much of clothing survives the passage of time, but the mummified corpses from the Qizilchoqa graves in Xinjiang, China, due to the highly dessicated environment they have lain in for around 3000 years, were found dressed in clothing of astonishing colour and style (Mallory & Mair). The weave and pattern of that Bronze Age cloth are said to be similar to those found in the cloths of Iron Age Celtic people of central and western Europe and even to the modern plaids and tartans of Scotland (Barber). The hypothesis has been proposed of a direct line of transmission from the originators of the Bronze Age twills to modern tartans.

Whatever the origin of Scottish tartans, the dyes used to colour the wool, and also that of the local woollen tweeds, are far from themselves local. Before the advent of manufactured dyes, the makers of tartan and tweed imported a wide range of dyes from England, mainland Europe and farther afield. 

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Sources and references

Anderson EF. 1993. Plants and people of the Golden Triangle: ethnobotany of the hill tribes of northern Thailand. Dioscorides Press (Timber Press) / Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, Thailand. 279 pages. ISBN 974-704-748-9

Barber EW. 1999. The mummies of Urumchi. Norton and Company, New York.

Burkhill IH.  1935. A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsular.  Reprinted 1966, published on behalf of the Governments of Malaysia and Singapore by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Two volumes, 2444 pages.

Crowfoot E, Pritchard F, Staniland K. 1992. Textiles and clothing 1150-1450. Museum of London (new edition 2001). ISBN 0 85115 840 4.

Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman's flora. Paperback published 1975 by Paladin, St Albans, UK. 542 pages.

Mallory JP, Mair VH. 2000. The Tarim Mummies. Paperback edition 2008. Thames and Hudson, London. 352 pages. ISBN 978-0-500-28372-1.

Stearn WT. 1966. Botanical Latin. Fourth edition published 1992 by Timber Press, Portland Oregon, USA. 546 pages. ISBN 0-88192-321-4

Thirsk J. 1997. Alternative agriculture. A history from the Black Death to the present day. Oxford University Press. 365 pages. ISBN 0-19-820662-3

Further links

EU-funded project Spindigo on the potential of indigo bearing plants (such as woad) in Europe.


Thanks are to for their advice and attention to detail in providing the Living Field with dyed wools, dyestuffs and various materials and extracts.

Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

[Page began 26 May 2010: latest update 14 March 2011]

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