Hooters Hall

Plant Dyes: A Character Study of Red, Yellow and Blue


Madder, common madder, dyer’s madder, a distant relative to the coffee plant, Rubia tinctorum is a master of disguise and deceit. A perennial plant that can grow a metre tall yet hides its height with weak stems that flop towards the ground without a support. Not that madder doesn’t want your attention. Every stem and leaf wears a coat of tiny hooks. Get too close and madder will grab you tight, a thousand tiny barbs seeking an irritant embrace.

Madder lives for years but would have you believe it dies every winter. As the days shorten it stars in a tragedy of faked decline. Leaves dry and stems wither. A bed of madder will take on the appearance of a mulch of straw, spread across the soil. Then in early April, amongst the lifeless husks of last year’s growth, you will see a collection of tiny buds. Vibrant and jewel like against the dried decay they herald madder’s resurrection as once again it returns.

Madder blossoms at the end of June. Small unimportant pale yellow flowers. Tiny stars that transform for madder’s summertime deceit. Each flower becomes a perfect swollen green sphere. A berry that darkens to a luscious blackcurrant but the similarity is on looks alone, the fruit is inedible. As summer progresses the berries of madder dry and shrink revealing peppercorn seeds, another visual mimicry.

Madder’s perennial drama of growth, death, resurrection and impersonation distracts from its true utility. Below ground are the roots. A secure vault that once unlocked by the dyer’s craft will reveal the red of alizarin.

As above ground madder cycles through its annual death and rebirth the roots maintain a steady growth. At three years you can harvest enough root to dye with. At five years the roots are pencil thick and at their best for dyeing. Unharvested the roots will continue to grow, at fifteen years they can thicken to an inch or more.

In a final attempt to disguise and deceive harvested madder roots have a yellow heart when cut. Then slowly air reacts with the root, turning the chemical key to unlock the secret store of red.


Weld, dyer’s rocket, dyer’s weed, woold or yellow weed. The names give a clue to the nature of Reseda luteola. An itinerant plant whose fine black seeds hitch a ride on the wind and settle in neglected spaces. Weld will grow thick stemmed and lush on rich moist soils but the ease of a comfortable environment robs it of usefulness as a dye plant. The best weld for dyeing grows thin stemmed in dry, sandy soils.

Unfussy in it’s search for a home and willing to colonise more inhospitable land, once weld has settled on a place it doesn’t take kindly to being moved on. Replanting leads to a deep sulk and failure to thrive. It’s not that weld is being contrary or ungrateful for the human attention that replanting brings. It’s a biennial and in it’s first year the growth is mainly below the soil. A deep taproot, impossible to replant in it’s entirety, searches out nutrients to feed the unimposing rosette of green that hugs the ground above.

In the second year weld abandons its cautious, unassuming form. It reaches for the sky with a flower stalk that shoots wildly high. The exuberant transformation reveals weld’s main character flaw — impetuosity. A character flaw that means dormant seeds will take a chance and germinate at anytime of year if there’s a hint of warmth. Some plants will even rush to complete an entire life cycle in one season. They abandon the careful storage of nutrients and race towards sexual maturity. Desperate to reveal their flower spike in all its glory. The architecture of the flower spike is the showiest part of weld. The actual flowers are small, neatly arranged yellow to green blossoms that cloak the length of the spike.

If threatened by drought or physical damage weld again revels in impetuosity and throws caution to the wind. Reasoning it’s better to reproduce and spread more seed than hunker down in the safety of that unimposing green rosette.


Isatis tinctoria, woad, dyer’s Woad or glastum is a biennial immigrant from the Caucasus now a settled resident of Europe and western North America. Woad is a confident plant, staking a claim on new pastures with such zeal that in certain states it is listed as a noxious weed and targeted for eradication. A single colony of woad in Montana increased its territory from 0.8 to 40.5 ha in two years.

It’s not just the confidence of woad that has given it such a bad reputation in certain botanical circles. An impolite guest at the all you can eat buffet of soil nutrients, woad has a gluttonous appetite for nitrogen. Selfish woad doesn’t share and will empty the larder for a hunger that’s never sated. It reaches right to the back of the cupboard for sustenance with a taproot that can grow up to 1.5m in length.

It should come as no surprise that such a significant anchorage brings with it both an admirable and frustrating quality — persistance. If Woad is happy and well fed it will stay put, ignoring all polite hints to move on. That’s not to say Woad is a homebody. Wind is woad’s chosen method of travel. Though it’s not adverse to taking advantage of any passing creatures that might be going it’s way. Bunches of black seeds with individual wings sway in the breeze and then take flight. An average plant will send 500 offspring to colonise new worlds. A more prolific plant can send up to 1000.

To make sure its seeds can catch the wind and fly woad grows tall. Delicate stems topped with sprays of yellow blossoms hold their heads high above botanical neighbours. Making sure the Woad offspring have a headstart in the race to find new soils.

Woad isn’t always self serving though. It has a generous side. The rosette of dark green leaves, that provide the famous blue dye, are a product of woad’s insatiable appetite for nitrogen. It’s thanks to woad’s greed that they can be harvested more than once in a season. Planted in March the crop will be ready from July to September. If your Woad is feeling particularly generous the harvest might be extended to November and if frost is avoided even all year round. Greedy, selfish, persistant, woad is a utilitarian provider at heart

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