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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Virtues and Pleasures of Herbs through History

Physic, Flavor, Fragrance and Dye


Native cultures have always used plants that were available to them to mark their bodies, dye skins and woven textiles and create patterns for adornment. Fragments remain from ancient cultures showing how sophisticated was their knowledge of dyes. When cultures converged during trade, exotic dye materials found their way around the world. Some dyes-stuffs, which involved complicated cultivation and processing, were produced in large quantities by guild workshops. Within the guild system, dye recipes were refined, regulated and closely guarded and became important to the economies of many countries. With the colonization of the New World, familiar dye plants that could be easily cultivated and processed in households were taken along. The colonists also experimented with new plants they encountered and learned of other dye plants from native populations. The European textile markets were reluctant to give up their skilled weavers and dyers, and so the American dependence on expensive imported dyes and textiles continued until the Industrial Revolution when the production of these materials became widespread. The discovery and development of synthetic dyes in the late 19th-century resulted in factories supplying the needs of growing urban populations, and with it the interest in producing natural dyes in most households declined. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century promoted the creation of beautiful, hand-made objects and with it came a resurgence of interest in plant-based dyes. Again in the 1960s many developed an interest in all things natural, and traditional dye recipes resurfaced.

Even though the colors obtained from herbs vary according to soil and climate conditions, the colors achieved from nature's palette never seem discordant. Synthetic dyes never match the subtle nuances of natural dyes that remain through repeated washings. Different parts of herbs, from flower, leaf or root, can produce a different color of dye, and different dyes and processes respond better to wool, cotton or silk. Wool was often used in European and North American textiles and cotton and silk in Asia and India. Natural dyes are categorized as substantive or direct (color bonds directly to fiber), adjective or indirect (color bonds with the use of a mordant [type of metallic salt or chemical]), or those that coat the fiber rather than bonding (requiring successive dipping). Many recipes involve adding plant material to a simmering water bath to extract the color and then immersing the fibers to be dyed, or covering the plant material with water and leaving it to ferment for a period of time so that the dye leeches out creating a liquor that will color fibers inserted in the bath. Other dyes only are released when in alkaline solutions. The intensity of the color can vary by temperature and length of time in the dye-bath, and the range of color can vary depending on the mordant that is used. Whether collected from humble roadside herbs or from exotic materials, fibers dyed with herbs have a beauty that can be enjoyed for years.


Today saffron (Crocus Linnaeus) is commonly known as an expensive flavoring, but for many centuries it was used as a deep yellow dye, needing no mordant, for fine textiles. Used by the ancient Persians, it was introduced into Spain by the Arabs in the 12th century, and it ultimately spread to northern Europe. In England saffron was grown in many places, but it grew particularly well in Essex where the calcium-rich soil was ideal. From the 16th to early 18th centuries the excellent quality of English grown saffron garnered higher prices than saffron imported from the Near East. During this period the Essex town of Saffron Walden, already a center of the wool trade, became a thriving market-place for saffron where it was sold for medicinal use, as a colorant for food and drink, and as a dye for wool. Ironically the poor quality of English-dyed textiles couldn't compete with those of Italy and Flanders, so the expensive saffron was not used in Saffron Walden for that purpose. The image of the crocus flower incorporated into Saffron Walden's coat of arms also appears in many architectural elements throughout the town. Although the woolen industry declined, spinning and weaving continued into the 1800s in Saffron Walden.

James Douglas (1675–1742), a native of Scotland, was an eminent London physician and a botanist. Reproduced here are pages 8–9 of his An Account of Saffron (Fig. 1). The work contained Douglas's observations on the cultivation, gathering and drying of the plant to provide the drug saffron and his calculations concerning the attendant charges and profits in three years on one acre of this crop.

Michel Étienne Descourtilz (1775–1836) was a French physician, traveler and naturalist. He trained as a surgeon and in 1798 went to Saint-Dominique (Haiti). He is well known for his Flore Pittoresque et Médicale des Antilles, which treated medicinal plants as well as those with commercial possibilities, providing descriptions along with 600 color plates. His Code du Safranier was a much briefer work on the cultivation and uses of saffron (Fig. 2).

Today the major sources of saffron are Spain, India, Greece, New Zealand and California. No wonder it is still so expensive, considering that it takes 70,000 crocus flowers to produce five pounds of hand-picked stigmas, which result in one pound of saffron when dried. Nearly 200 hours of hand labor are needed to produce one pound, and the stigmas must be harvested every day before the flower wilts (Fig. 3).


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Linnaeus), also known as red puccoon, Indian paint, redroot, snakebite and sweet slumber, is one of the loveliest, ephemeral wildflowers anticipated each spring. The rhizomes of bloodroot were used for medicinal purposes as well as a red dye for skin and clothing by many Native American tribes. The Ojibwa used bloodroot to dye porcupine quills red and to paint clan marks on their faces, and it was used as a rouge by the young girls of the tribe. The Merskwaki cooked bloodroot to use as face paint and to dye red their baskets and the rushes they wove into mats. The Illinois combined bloodroot with sumac berries for a richer dye, and the Chippewa combined it with the shredded root of wild plum for a dark yellow dye. The early colonists learned of the usefulness of many unfamiliar plants from the native Indian tribes, including the use of bloodroot, pokeweed berry, sumac, tree bark and lichen for dyes. Often the articles that were dyed by the native tribes faded quickly, so it was unlikely that mordants were used to set the colors. Contemporary recipes recommend soaking cut roots for a few hours in the water to be used for dyeing and then simmering the wool (pre-mordanted with alum) in the bath for less than an hour to impart a red-orange color (Fig. 4).

Warning: The toxicity of bloodroot sap causes irritation to moist membranes.

William Curtis (1746–1799) was trained as an apothecary, but his interest in the British flora and later in garden plants led to a long publishing career. In 1787 he began a periodical designed to illustrate and describe "the most Ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the green-house, and stove." The Botanical Magazine was a convenient octavo size and provided exquisite colored illustrations of garden plants to fill the public demand for information on the many new plants coming into gardens. In some periods it was published as Curtis's Botanical Magazine; in 1984–1994 it was published as Kew Magazine. It stimulated the publication of a number of rival botanical and horticultural periodicals, and it is the oldest scientific magazine in the world with colored plates that is still being published.

Regarding Sanguinaria canadensis Linnaeus, Curtis's comments were brief but included this note: "The woods of Canada, as well as of other parts of North America, produce this plant in abundance ... Its knobby roots, when broken asunder, pour forth a juice of a bright red or orange colour, whence its name of Sanguinaria; with this liquid the Indians are said to paint themselves." He also notes that as early as 1680 Robert Morison reported that Sanguinaria was being cultivated in England (Fig. 5).


Woad (Isatis Linnaeus), a member of the mustard family, has a long history as a dye plant. Romans encountered the ancient Britons who stained their bodies blue for battle with the fermented leaves of woad. Indeed, the word Britain is believed to come from the Celtic word brith, which means paint. Theophrastus (ca.370–ca.286 B.C.), the "father of taxonomy," and the Greek physician Dioscorides (ca.40–ca.90) wrote of the use of woad as a dye plant. Considering its complex process, it is remarkable that this plant was used for a dye so early in history. After the leaves were ground and fermented in water, an alkaline substance such as vegetable ash, urine or lime water was added. In this bath the fibers were dipped and then exposed to the air repeatedly to achieve a deep blue color that was fixed by oxidization.

During the Middle Ages woad was grown throughout Europe and required many acres since it quickly depleted the soil. Tuscany became one of the main centers for woad production and supported the cloth industry of Florence. The Florentine Wool Guild (Arte della Lana) imported high quality wool from England, Flanders and Spain. This powerful guild, which included highly skilled scourers, weavers, fullers and dyers, produced many of the finest fabrics sold throughout Europe. All of the dye processes used by the guild were complicated and closely guarded secrets, so much so that the dyers were forbidden to leave the city. The woad dyers (tintori de guado) were given the highest wages and also helped negotiate the purchase price for the raw dye material. The lengthy and arduous process of woad dye production involved grinding and drying the pulp for a week or more, shaping it by hand into balls according to the guild mandate of size and weight and drying the balls on racks for 2–4 weeks. The balls were then ground into powder, dampened with water and left to ferment in the couching house. After several more weeks when the pile had shrunk, the dark residue was packed into bales weighing 150–200 pounds.

Indigo, Indigofera tinctoria Linnaeus, an Asian legume producing a blue dye, was known to ancient Europeans, but woad producers halted the import into woad-producing countries until the 17th century. They predicted correctly that indigo would replace woad as the more desirable blue dye. More recently woad has been added to indigo dye baths to promote fermentation and produce a deep blue-black dye.

John Gerard (1545–1612) was superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and also had a large garden of his own in Holborn and was a member of the Barber-Surgeons' Company. He was contacted by publisher John Norton after Dr. Priest, who was to translate Rembert Dodoens' Pemptades, died before that work could be finished. Gerard accepted the task and then, without permission, reorganized the text according to L'Obel's system instead, apparently intending to pass it off as an original work of his own. This introduced a large number of errors, which Mathias de L'Obel (1538–1616) was engaged to fix, but Gerard became impatient and insisted that the work be published as it was, and so it was published in 1597, errors and all. Most of the woodcuts were re-used from Tabernaemontanus' Eicones (1590). In 1633 a second, revised edition, much corrected and enlarged, was produced by well-known London apothecary and botanist Thomas Johnson (?–1644), with woodcuts (including this one of woad, Fig. 6) from the Plantin publishing house, the second edition containing over 1,000 more images than the first. It was commissioned and published by the successors of John Norton's publishing house.


Tansy's name is derived from the Greek Athanasia meaning "immortal," perhaps noting its long life in the garden. Tansy (Tanacetum Linnaeus) was used as an embalming agent from ancient days until the time of the American Revolution. The colonists carried to the new world seeds of the plants familiar to them, and tansy was a culinary, medicinal and useful household herb. Stems of tansy were hung, placed on meat and strewn on floors to repel flies, mosquitoes and ants. To the colonists tansy was a favorite dye herb because once planted in their gardens it produced a ready supply, as imported dyes were expensive and often difficult to obtain. Soon after tansy was introduced into colonial gardens, it escaped and quickly naturalized in the countryside since it spread by underground runners. The flowers of tansy are gathered in late summer and fall and preferably used fresh in the dye-bath to impart colors ranging from yellow to gold.

William Woodville (1752–1805) was one of a number of eminent Quaker physicians who lived and worked in Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Woodville was an early advocate of the theory of vaccination. A fellow of the Linnean Society, he also maintained a two-acre botanical garden at his own expense at King's Cross. His Medical Botany would remain the standard work illustrating the plants of the British pharmacopoeia for nearly a century. A second edition appeared in 1810, and a third in 1832. According to the preface, the plates were by "Mr. Sowerby, an artist of established reputation, whose talents are not less conspicuous in the correctness than in the beauty of his designs." Of tansy, Woodville added this to his medical text: "the tincture made from the leaves is of a fine green; from the flowers of a bright pale yellow colour" (p. 315; Fig. 7).


Robert Chenciner in his exhaustive history Madder Red (2000) calls madder (Rubia Linnaeus) "the 5,000 year old root" (Fig. 8). Madder has been used in dyeing through the centuries, including Persian textiles, early artists' pigments, William Morris's chintzes, woven fabrics, printed cottons and wallpaper. Madder was used in the highly secretive recipe for "Turkey red" that created one of the most enduring brilliant reds, valued because it could be used on cotton fiber. Again a complicated process, it involved boiling, tanning and mordanting the cotton fibers with alum and calcium (sometimes dung, sumac and the tannin producing oak galls also were used before dyeing).

In Europe madder was cultivated in Italy, France and Holland. One of the longest running centers for the cultivation and production of madder occurred on the islands of Dutch Zeeland from the 14th to 18th centuries. The moist alluvial soil provided the perfect condition for its growth, and the ready supply of peat provided the heat source for the kilns. Holland's production of madder was highly refined and profitable, and many other countries had difficulty competing.

Philip Miller (1691–1771) was chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1721 until shortly before his death and author of The Gardener's Dictionary (1731). He corresponded with numerous botanists and obtained seeds and plants from all over the world, many of which he introduced to England. In 1758 he published an illustrated 38-page treatise, urging English farmers to resume cultivation of madder as a substitute for Dutch imports, whose price and adulteration both increased with demand. Madder was needed, among other uses, for the red uniforms of the British army. He also suggested that the oast houses (used for drying malt and hops and still seen today) be used for drying madder. Cultivation of madder had fallen into decline due to problems involved with tithes claimed on madder crops. Partly as a result of Miller's efforts, a 14-year tithe relief was passed by the government (Figs. 9, 10).

The illustration (Fig. 11) from Miller's The Method of Cultivating Madder shows one of the critical steps in the production of madder as described in Chenciner (2000). Before it reached the pounding house:

  • Roots were steamed to release sugars to encourage fermentation.
  • Roots were air-dried for 10–12 hours at a constant temperature in a drying house (which had a series of lofts heated by brick flues under tile floors).
  • Roots were taken to a "hog kiln" evenly heated by peat for 20 hours under skilled supervision.
  • Then the pounding master supervised the grinding of the dried roots in the pounding house (illustrated above). "Three horses rotated a large-toothed wheel above their heads, which drove a small bevel on a long horizontal mounted shaft. Redolent of a pianola, the shaft bristled with a balanced line of pegs which raised and released a row of tilt-hammers, vertical stakes made of wood shod with iron, which dropped into hollow oak log mortars."
  • A series of three grindings produced three grades of dyestuff, the third grinding being of the finest quality.
  • The ground powder was stored in wooden casks where natural fermentation increased the weight and concentration of the dyestuff.

By 1869 a synthetic alizarin was produced as a substitute for madder, and within ten years the production of the plant-based dyestuff decreased significantly.

View Images

Saffron [Crocus Linnaeus, Iridaceae], hand-colored engraving by Cornelius Heinrich Hemmerich after an original by Timothy Sheldrake (fl.1734–1759) for his Botanicum Medicinale: An Herbal of Medicinal Plants on the College of Physicians' List ... Most Beautifully Engraved on 120 Large Folio Copper-Plates (London, Printed for J. Millan, [?1759], pl. 93), HI Library call no. DF5 S544B.