Madder mining

Mining madder

Colour-detectorists; searching for local dye plants.

Half an hour from Kings Cross, deep-rural edging the Chilterns, we mined fire-red madder from the chalk rich earth. Legends of cow’s bones transformed crimson when fed on madder tops. We only want the roots; three years old and twisted repugnant realisations of Brothers Grimm tales.

grand teint, madder is omnipotent in natural-dye hierarchies; its colourfast properties validated and enshrined by 17th century French laws. Dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum) and Indian Madder (Rubia cordifolia) dominate this turkey-red, terracotta, scarlet and purple smorgasbord.

The red-rooted madder clan are illustrious and ingenious; some indigenous to the Uk and some shiveringly light-famished in the northern hemisphere. 

Dyers woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) lacy under the surface, yields a sharp clear red.

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina) coloniser of clifftops and rural West Country idylls.

Ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) roots a network of daintiness. Alleged saviour of the 17th and 18th century Hebridean machair, slowing coastal erosion and binding clifftops with its wiry root system. In a tempestuous climate emergency, we need local heroes.

Susan Dye (a name to die for) of Natures Rainbow, and her husband Ashley, are troves of information. Flo and Lara, in awe of the detailed plant knowledge and intrigued by a rare sighting of the sun, listened to their tales. Rare experimental colours:

Devils-bit-scabious – promises indigo, but renegades on delivery.

Elecampane  – Scottish myths of vivid blue, tantalising but realised only in a useful grey.

Dyers sawort – purple flowers and yellow dye.

And, another grand teint, Weld its tiny seeds waiting meekly, then sneaky germinating in disturbed soil.

Mining of natural dyes, cracking open the earth by spade on an allotment devoted to dye plants. Bird-song, the smell of blossom and neighbourly lunch. Antithesis of coal mining and cracking crude oil used for synthetic dye production.

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