My first madder harvest

Madder plant in winter

Madder plant in winter

Last week I harvested my first madder plants, which have died back, as they do, for the winter. The fact that these plants die back in colder weather has been quite a relief for me, since I’ve spent quite a lot of time fighting them this year.

I love the fact that I’m growing madder plants for use, and that I’ve just harvested my first bunch of them. It’s exciting. But grower beware: madder does spread aggressively. I planted sixteen madder plants in raised/lowered beds in the spring of last year, taking up about half the garden plot. Yeah, maybe I overdid it a little – but that was right at the beginning of everything, and I was so anxious to get things started, and I didn’t have any other dye plants handy at the time. I also had read that madder needs at least two or three years in the ground before harvesting, and again that made me want to start big.

Madder shoots

Madder shoots

Since then, my main task in that garden plot – at times my overwhelming task – has been to keep that madder under control. They didn’t do much the first year, just kind of lay around in their beds, but the second year they just went crazy. There were two plants in particular, planted in higher, softer earth, which have caused some major issues, aggressively sending runners and shoots into my poor neighbor Frank’s garden plot. He has been good-natured enough about it, but it must have been a bit (or more than a bit) annoying at times to have unwanted madder plants among the broccoli. (The pic to the right shows some fresh madder shoots, sent by runner roots, invading my poor neighbor’s garden plot. This is after at least two throrough eradications already this year.) So those were the two plants I chose to dig up first. It’s only been a year and a half, but in this case a year and a half does at least mean two full growing seasons – and I just don’t want to leave those two particular plants in the ground any longer. In any case, I have an opportunity to test the literature on the subject of growing time: since I’ve got so many madder plants in the garden plot (there are still fourteen left), what I’ll do is dig up a new plant or two every six months or so and compare the results. There may be a “sweet spot” in terms of time in the ground versus the amount/quality of dye produced, and if there is I’ll find out.

Freshly-dug madder roots

Freshly-dug madder roots

Here is one corner of the decimated bed – that place was absolutely filled with roots. I know I left some roots in there, there’s no way I got them all – but after a while the back wins out over the heart, and there must be an end. I was out there for hours, and still didn’t finish the whole job in a day. Next to the bed, and nestled between some weld plants (right) and blue irises (top) are some of the madder roots after digging. I tried to pass over those much smaller than a pencil, as I know the roots will contract in size as they dry, and the smaller roots probably don’t have a whole lot of dye in them in any case. There were a couple of nice big blocks of root there, even from plants so young.

Madder-dyed wood

Madder-dyed wood

I’ve read in a couple of sources that there is no indication in the appearance of the roots of the color that lies within. I say nonsense. They are bright orange if you break them open. As someone who is obsessed with getting color out of plants, and with trying out new natural dye sources, I can say that trying these roots out for dye content was probably pretty obvious in early times – there’s a reason madder is one of the earliest dyes recorded. On the right are some pulled roots that have stained the neighboring wood of the raised bed violet with their alizarin!

Fresh madder roots

Fresh madder roots

Here are the roots after an initial rinse with the hose, drying out in the sun. Watch out, bees seem to enjoy the smell of these fresh roots; I was forced to defend my harvest! Now the roots are dessicating on the back porch. When they are completely dry I will discard the roots that have shrunk to a very small size, and then test the remainder for dye content.

Bonus: I caught a lizard! Second time this year, I guess I’m not as slowed-down as I thought. Or maybe all this gardening is just good for me. Isn’t he cute?

Dye garden denizen

Dye garden denizen

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One Response to “My first madder harvest”

  1. Madder harvest – continued « Sunsikell Says:

    […] of digging for madder roots. I know I did this a couple of months ago, as described in my post My first madder harvest. But… the stuff grows back. With a vengeance. Every little root scrap and fragment I left in […]

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