The nature of things
Woad and weld
TWO of the oldest of dyers’ plants are flowering now. Woad (Isatis tinctoria, top left, bottom left) produces tall stems topped by loose, broccoli-type heads full of tiny, sulphur-yellow flowers. It makes an unusual and attractive, although short-lived, garden plant. Widely reputed to have been the source of a tattoo ink used by ancient Britons and others, woad’s commercial value was always in the slender leaves that, for several thousand years, provided indigo-blue pigment. However, it’s said that the smell of the fermenting leaves produced a smell so disgusting that it was an offence to process woad near royal palaces in Tudor times.
Originally hailing from the Russian steppes, its commercial value soon saw it being widely cultivated elsewhere. Naturalised woad is very rare in Britain, however, except near establishments where it’s still grown for its special pigments.
Weld, or dyer’s rocket (Reseda luteola, top right and bottom right), looks just like a wayside weed (which it is), sending up tall, wayward pokers studded with tiny, yellowish flowers enjoyed by bees and butterflies. Rich in luteolin, it yields a bright-yellow dye (and when blended with woad, the two produce Lincoln green). During the Middle Ages boom in wool production in Britain, weld cultivation developed on a large scale, especially in Kent, Essex and Yorkshire, the plant having an affinity with fastdraining, neutral and lime-rich habitats. KBH
Illustrations by Bill Donohoe