(Rubia tinctorum) – also called Turkey Red
The roots of this ancient plant are rich in red alizarin and are the source of a strong red dye. The uniforms of the British Red Coats were dyed with madder root. It is a perennial plant growing to a height of approximately 100cm. It has slender jointed stems which are covered with short prickly leaves. The flowers are small green/yellow and ball shaped. In the late autumn the seeds turn black and dry out to resemble black peppercorns.
Madder thrives in a full sun and well drained soil. The colour varies from red to orange depending upon the mineral content of the soil and water, the age of the root and where the madder was grown. The temperature of the dye pot also affects the colour, as does the water used. Madder produces a better red in hard water. The roots produce more alizarin pigment if the soil is well limed in the winter.
Madder has been cultivated as a dye for thousands of years in Central Asia and Egypt where it was grown as far back as 1500 B.C. Material dyed with madder root was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.
I grow my madder in controlled beds. They are sprawling plants and the roots require a three year growing period before they can be harvested, after which time they are about the thickness of a pencil, After digging the roots I carefully wash off the soil and soak them for a couple of hours to remove a yellow and brown pigment which is also present in the root and not required. When the roots are clean, it is much easier to chop and grind them before they dry, as it is extremely difficult to cut the dried roots.
I usually get between 5 and six pounds of roots from a dozen plants.
We sell madder dyes and seeds at The Beehive shop or online at www.dyeing-crafts.co.uk