Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Friday, 4 November 2011

Wild Madder goes red

Towards the end of the summer I was out botanising with a friend and we came across a Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) plant growing on the edge of some woodland. This is a butch, version of the ubiquitous Cleavers (otherwise called Goosegrass or Sticky Willy), being larger, tougher, pricklier, and an evergreen. They are both members of the ‘Bedstraw’ family (Rubiaceae) that are generally sprawling climbers and include the Tropical Coffee plant. In the autumn Wild Madder plants produce characteristic dark black berries, like over-sized elderberries (see image).

I was surprised when Greg said that it was the first time he had seen this plant. Although it was new to me this year I had seen it several times on my walks about Devon this year. However checking the distribution map for this species on the ‘NBN Gateway’ ( clearly shows a strong south-west preference, with no records from his home county in Essex. I have most commonly seen it recently on coastal walks which also seem to be its preference – perhaps due to its apparent resilience towards sea spray.
The madders were used traditionally for many centuries in the making of various dyes - remains of madder were excavated with Viking material at York (, 2011). The closely related Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum), was introduced to the UK and formerly grown for its dye (Stace, 2010),  ‘Turkey Red’, a brilliant red permanent dye - this was very well known in 19th century for “maddering” wool and cotton (Koreankye, 2010). Wild Madder provides a subtler, rose-pink dye. The long roots of the madders are particularly rich in these dyes and were used with materials such as leather and wool until towards the end of the Nineteenth century, when they were replaced by the more efficient industrial manufacture of the chemical, Alizarin Red (, 2011). However some traditionalists are reacquainting themselves with old methods of natural dyeing with plants such as Madder (see This seems to be another example of people turning their backs on disconnecting industrialisation and trying to relearn from nature’s amazing secrets.

Korankye, O. (2010) Extraction and application of plant dyes to serve as colourants for food and textiles. []
Stace, C.A. (2010) New Flora of the British Isles (3rd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2011) [online] Madder - [Accessed 4/11/11]

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