This rather untidy plant (in the Dyer’s Garden) can grow up to 1.5m in height and it climbs with tiny hooks on the leaves and stems. The flowers are very small with pale yellow petals followed by small red to black berries.
Madder roots have been used as a vegetable red dye for leather, wool, cotton and silk for over 5,000 years. Archaeologists have found traces of madder in linen in Tutankhamen’s tomb (1350 BC) and the ruins of Pompeii. The fleshy swollen roots produce red dye and alizarin is the main chemical compound which produces the red colour. This can vary from deep reds to orange depending on the mineral content of the soil and water, the age of the root and where the madder was grown.
From the mid-17th to the 19th century, the uniform of many British soldiers included a red coat dyed with madder – hence the nickname ‘Redcoats’ for soldiers. Madder was imported in large quantities from Holland and the ready availability made it popular for military clothing as the dying process required for red involved only one stage. It was recognised as economical, simple and reliable and remained the first choice for general use until chemical dyes became cheaper in the latter 19th century.
Madder was also grown extensively in East Anglia in medieval times and the area in the centre of the city of Norwich is still called the Maddermarket to this day.
Dr Darwin writes about madder in a lengthy footnote in his book ‘The Loves of the Plants’. He shows a scientific interest in the effects of the dye, rather than a practical one:
‘This plant is cultivated in very large quantities for dying red. If mixed with the food of young pigs or chickens, it colours their bones red…The colouring materials of vegetables, like those which serve the purpose of tanning, varnishing, and the various medical purposes, do not seem essential to the life of the plant; but seem given it as a defence against the depredations of insects or other animals, to whom these materials are nauseous or deleterious.’
Madder was also used medicinally and Dr Meyrick of Birmingham says in his Family Herbal 1790 that it ‘cures the jaundice and is useful in the beginning of dropsies [oedema]’.