The plant depicted in the article on dye plants on page 49 of your August issue looks a lot like Galium aparine or cleavers, not Rubia tinctorum or madder as you refer to it. Cleavers, Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff), Galium verum (lady’s bedstraw) and madder are all whanau and look similar.
According to the description in my herbals, the plant depicted has rounded tips to the leaves and appears much like the very common garden weed with the rough leaves and round sticky seeds which cling to all and sundry, hence the common name, cleavers. To confuse ‘madders’ even more, Sheradia arvensis or field madder is very similar to Rubia tinctorum, only differing in the colour of its pinkish blue flowers.
When it is not possible to have an expert assist with identification of plant specimens, I have found the Frampton Flora by Richard Mabey to be an excellent and beautiful book. The exquisite paintings produced by the Clifford family from 1828 to 1851 somehow capture the subtle nuances between similar plants so much better than photographs.
While accurate identification of dye plants is not a big issue, that of medicinal herbs is. Apparently in the 1970s an eminent scientific journal published a picture of Nepeta cataria alongside a description of marijuana. Purchases of catnip mice escalated as scores of mad hippies sought to get high by smoking the contents of the mice.
Editor’s note: thank you to Marie for letting us know, and our apologies for the error.