Archive for March, 2011

Madder lake from the garden

March 6, 2011

I spent the morning in the garden today – some of you are waiting for fresh iris rhizomes, and the weather finally cleared up enough for me to go dig some up. However, as has happened on so many other occasions, the best of intentions were thwarted – by the madder plants. I wanted to replant some of the rhizomes that have been sitting around here for too long, but to do that I needed to make sure the madder roots would leave the poor little girls alone. Turned into a pitched battle, as usual. But! I cleared a space for the irises, got some of them into the ground, and I will dig up some fresh bulbs on Thursday morning, to be sent Friday or Saturday.

Speaking of madder: I’ve enjoyed a bit of a milestone this spring, as for the first time I’ve made a madder lake from the roots I’ve grown in my own garden. All looked well, and for a while I was pretty excited. But when I mulled a bit of my new lake pigment up into an oil paint today after I returned from the garden, I found that the color is not as good as I had hoped. It’s darker and less saturated – almost maroon – and not nearly as bright as the madder lake I’d made from store-bought madder roots. Only when I apply the paint as a very thick glaze does it approach a decent red color.

Madder roots

Insistent madder roots

This is not at all good enough to justify all this trouble. Trouble! If you’ve never grown madder, then you can’t really understand what a royal pain the stuff has been. For evidence, just take a look at the board I happened to pull up today while digging for the roots. Yes, those are fresh madder roots pushing their way right through the board that I had put down there to stop them.

Also, even after you’ve fought the plants for years, and dug deep to get the roots out, it’s still a painstaking process after that to get a decent lake pigment from them. (At some point I’ll share my madder lake recipe, but not yet. There are still too many variations to try out before I’m sure of myself; and I’m still not sure if the recipe belongs here on this blog, or in a book. Or whether or not I’ll write a book at all.) So, if I can’t manage a better color than this, I’ll just go through the garden over a weekend and just rip them all out. Give the irises some more room.

madder lake swatches

madder lake swatches

To the right you can see two swatches of the madder lake from my garden, the two swatches at bottom. For comparison, I brushed out my previous madder lake, made from commercially-bought madder roots, above them. It’s not a really accurate pic, but you can see the difference. The lake from the garden isn’t horrible or anything – just not worth all the trouble.

I can think of three reasons why this color was not as good as the other I made. One, I made it a bit differently. (I don’t think that’s the reason.) Two, the earth in which the madder is growing may not be alkaline enough. (I doubt this is the reason either; the soil around here is pretty alkaline. But it’s possible.) Third, the roots from which I made this lake were too immature. This was a mixed batch of roots that were dug up at one and a half years and two years. I’m guessing – hoping – that’s the reason.

Madder roots

Madder roots from the garden

Today I dug up some roots that are clearly mature. They’ve been in the ground for about three years now. And just take a look at the size of some of those honking madder roots! I’ll be trying these out to see if there’s a substantial difference from the last batch, using exactly the recipe I used with the commercially-bought roots. Hopefully these will make something a lot closer to that one. If not, I’ll try amending the garden soil with lime or something. And if that doesn’t work, I may rip the things out and grow something easier instead. It would be disappointing – but kind of a relief too. I’ll report as I learn.