Madder’s Family

Madder has several relatives that are also rich in useful reds. These plants are native here in Denmark, and have been used as red dyes a very long time back.

Believe it or not, the year is drawing to a close. So, I want to try to summarize all the many dyeing experiments I did over the year.

This summer, I searched for madder’s relatives, to find as many as possible. Madder, Rubia tinctoria, belongs to the madder family (Rubiaceae) in which you also find the bedstraws (the genus Galium).

Galium species do not contain as large amounts of red dye as cultivated madder does, but several of the species grow wild here in Denmark, and their historical use is well known.

Madder plant growing in my dye garden.

The first Galium species to present itself was cleavers (Galium aparine). It’s everywhere! Anybody who has ever walked outside surely know this plant. Or at least its seeds. They are extremely good at clinging to clothing and dog fur. The whole plant is covered with clingy hooks – the very same that cultivated madder has.

My attempt to dig up cleaver roots quickly came to an end. The roots have the thickness of sewing thread, so a lot of digging is required. But the roots are said to contain dye, so I’m keeping them on my list of maybes.

Cleavers up close. You can see the characteristic clingy hooks on the seeds. The very same that madder is covered with.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is the plant mentioned by most natural dyeing books. I tried growing it in the garden this year, seeding it outside in the spring, but nothing grew.

Whenever you’re looking for a specific plant or mushroom, but haven’t found it yet, it’s simply invisible. But, once you find it, you start seeing it everywhere. The relationship between Lady’s bedstraw and myself developed exactly like that over the summer. Once I found it, it was everywhere! For example this coastal grassland:

Coastal grasslands with very sandy and infertile soil, perfect for Lady’s bedstraw. I took this picture in a region of Denmark called Mols.


Lady’s bedstraw truly thrives in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, along with yarrow and St. John’s wort.

Lady’s bedstraw growing in a big cluster.

Unfortunately, several walks with a shovel only yielded a very small handful of Lady’s bedstraw roots – so little that my scale didn’t register. Like with cleavers, the roots are extremely fine, and they tangle up with roots of grass etc. In combination with stony, sandy soil, the digging job gets hard. To get your hands on a larger pile of these roots, I suspect you have to grow them in a well-prepared sandy soil without obstacles. Anyway, I tried dyeing with my small handful of roots, but it gave almost no color.

But then, on a forest walk, this plant turned up – hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo):

Flowering hedge bedstraw photographed in July.

Hedge bedstraw is also mentioned by different books as a dye plant, so I brought out the shovel once more. Again, it was difficult. The forest soil is obviously full of tree roots that make digging quite impossible. But I managed to get a couple of handfuls of roots, mainly because hedge bedstraw roots are not that thin. I dug up the roots on July 9th. The next day, after cleaning, the slightly dried roots weighed 30 g.

My pile of hedge bedstraw roots, with reds clearly showing under the out bark.

I soaked the roots in cold water overnight, then dyed my usual alum mordanted 12-gram skeins of Fernris to test the dye. I removed the overnight water because Jenny Dean does, but I should have concluded from my madder experiments that it is not necessary to do so. The water used to soak the roots overnight simply contains a small amount of dye, with the same properties as the dye you extract when you heat the roots in water (the small 6-gram skein laying across the others in the picture below was dyed with the discarded water).

Then, I dyed alum mordanted 12-gram skeins in a 1st and 2nd dyebath, in exactly the same way as if it had been madder: heating up to 60 degrees C, then leaving the yarn in the dyebath until the next day. The first bath gave a convincing red-orange, which would not have been a surprise had it been madder I was dyeing with. The dye is less abundant in hedge bedstraw than in madder, but the difference is actually smaller than anticipated. Here, I used 30 g of roots on 12 g of yarn, with madder, you would get this shade with less than 100% weight of fiber.

After the second bath, which also worked well, I was evidently feeling on top of things, and threw in a 50 g skein. There was not much dye left, but to extract everything that was there, I left the bath with yarn in a jar outside. That was in mid-July.

A couple of times, I heated the entire jar over a water bath to give the process a helping hand, but the rest of the time, it was just standing there. I turned over the yarn to get an even dye, and for a while, it also fermented. Both time and fermentation should help release the dye. Also, I imagine that a skein of yarn in the bath will soak up the dye as it is released, permitting more to come out (alizarin has a rather low solubility in water). In any case, my large skein stayed in the jar for 6 weeks, and turned out a pleasing coral color. And, the dye bath ran clear, so there was probably nothing left in the roots.

Dyeing with roots of hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). 1st bath (left), 2nd bath (middle), and the large skein on the right is fermentation of the 3rd bath. The small skein across was dyed in the water used to soak the roots overnight.

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