Woad Trip: Creating a Dye Garden

Woad was the source of the blue pigment used by Mel Gibson, er, ancient Celts to make scary faces to go into battle with.

The North Stonington (Connecticut)  Historical Society has refurbished an old dye house that was on the grounds of the Stephen Main Homestead, a property they administer. As part of that restoration, they proposed planting a garden of dyer’s herbs. Simple, right?

Their first stop was the North Stonington Garden Club, and that’s where I came in. I blithely volunteered to start the plants from seed which couldn’t be easily purchased locally. This began an odyssey involving a list of approximately 50 different plants, a dozen different seed houses and nurseries, and a whole lotta potting mix.

I rather fancy myself a sort-of expert on seed starting. “Sure,” I said, “I’d be glad to do it! Sounds like fun!” Well, truth be told, it really was fun. It took a lot of research, but I now have some pretty interesting plants growing in my seed-starting set-up. Woad, Weld, Madder, Japanese Indigo, True Indigo, Alkanet, Elecampane, Lady’s Bedstraw—the plants are as interesting and (literally) colorful as their names.

For example, Madder is the source of the red dye that gave the British Redcoats their name.

What’s the madder with this picture???

Indigo has been used for so long that it’s the Greek word for dye. Woad, originally grown in Europe, produces a dye which is chemically identical to that produced by Indigo, and was used as a substitute during the Middle Ages.

Wow! Does she ever look lucky or what???

Alkanet provides the red color in New Orleans Style Fast Luck Powder. I didn’t even know there was  such a thing as New Orleans Style Fast Luck Powder.

The Mediterranean herb Weld is the oldest yellow dye plant in the world, and is mentioned in the Hebrew bible and was used to dye the robes of the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome.

The Vestal Virgins were just dyeing for dates. Maybe they need some New Orleans Style Fast Luck Powder!

All in all, I think this will be a fascinating and educational garden. I’ll keep you posted during its construction with pictures and I’ll let you know when it’s up and running.


About auntie beak

Hiker, blogger, lover-of-maps, Red Sox and Patriots fan
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5 Responses to Woad Trip: Creating a Dye Garden

  1. Wendy says:

    what a fun project. I’ll be waiting on more posts about this! I blogged a while ago about using cochineal (scale insect) for red dye. Amazing that there are such intense colors in plants that they can be made into these vibrant dyes.


    • auntie beak says:

      it is a lot of fun. fyi, the north stonington historical society will be hosting a dyeing program, open to the public, on june 27. i will post the details as they become available.


  2. HerbDoc says:

    Please let us know when this exciting dye bed is up and running! Some others to include are: agrimony (yellow), bloodroot (orange), chamomile (yellow), Dyer’s broom (yellow), sumac (tan/brown). If you decide to do some flowers, veggies, etc., let me know…I’ll give you a list! Some need mordants like alum, cream of tartar, or potassium dichromate (chrome), and it takes about a pound of raw material to dye 4 oz. of wool. I have some recipes too if you need them.


    • auntie beak says:

      will do, hd! i have some of the plants you mentioned growing on in the school greenhouse as we speak. and i met with the lady who will be doing the actual installation and gardening this morning. she has 19 years experience working at capriland’s herb farm, and is very knowledgeable.

      and if you have any suggestions about how to get agrimony seed to germinate, pass them along.


  3. HerbDoc says:

    Agrimony has a reputation for being a very slow germinator! (Guess you’re finding that out). It needs a period of cold to do well so either sow it in the fall or refrigerate the seed for a month or so before planting. Once established in the garden, it will self sow or you can propagate it from root cuttings. Good luck, Auntie!


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