Madder lake from the garden

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.


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9 Responses to “Madder lake from the garden”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    do you make your iris flowers into an ink, clothet, powdered pigment? the madder looks great. i can empathize with some of your sentiments about particular pigments processed from the garden not being “worth the trouble”. anyhow. nice work!!!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hi Jeremy,

      The best luck I’ve had with the iris is to make it into an ink. I’ll bet it could be made into a clothlet color as well, but I haven’t tried it. I have tried laking the iris juice, and that actually works pretty well – I’ve made and used an iris green watercolor. I may do that with this year’s batch, simply because it does keep longer that way. I’m not completely certain the iris lake is 100% non-soluble, so that might be an issue.

      I look forward to trying out the more mature madder roots. If they’re significantly better then it will have been worth all the trouble. We’ll see!

  2. Alex Says:

    Hey LLawrence! This is Alex from WetCanvas! Hope you´re doing all right! As I told you before, this post is really incredible. I loved to hear about yor experience on growing the Madder ad using from your own garden. FASCINATING.

    I was considering doing the same. Really. Today I just lost all hope although. I just discovered that the Rubia Tinctorum is a rare plant on my country. Impossible to find. Nobody EVER heard about this kind of plant here.

    Anyway, your post is great, as your site too! I will be following and reading all the interest articles. Thanks a lot for writing this Blog!


    • llawrence Says:

      Hey Alex,

      Thanks for stopping by and posting! I appreciate the comments. Readers, Alex is another artist who hand-makes his own historic pigments and paints.

      I wonder if it’s possible for you to purchase madder seeds and germinate some that way. I do actually have some madder seeds from my plants. I’ve never tried growing madder from seeds (I bought live seedlings and grew those); but let me know if you’re interested, I might be able to send you some.

      Thanks and see you in the Color Theory forum!

  3. Alex Says:

    Hey Lawrence!

    You´re very, very kind and I really appreciate your kind offer. I tryed to reach a considerate number of plant business here and NONE have ever heard about the Rubia Tinctorium. It may be a common plant on europe and on the US, but here is completelly obscure.

    Thanks for your offering, but I dont want to be any trouble for you. Really.

    Your plants are looking beautiful. I will stay tuned to see what else you have been cooking up!


  4. naturalne barwniki i pigmenty: kraplak | wnętrza historyczne Says:

    […] korzenie marzany, z których pozyskuje się kraplak; fot. via sunsikell […]

  5. Paula McHugh Says:

    hi. i am beginning work on a post for my blog about madder lake. It is part of my classic color series at AND I ran across this lovely article of yours!
    it looks like you have experience with madder root and making pigment…?

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi Paula! I do have experience cultivating madder plants, and making lake pigments with the roots. My next planned post is how to make a good madder lake. Thanks for the comment and stay tuned!

      • Paula McHugh Says:

        Hi Lawrence,
        It sounds like the timing is perfect for my blog entitled “Extraordinary Madders.” I would love to link your blog to mine when the time comes, and hear about your experience in laking madder. Please take a look at and you will see previous posts on Verdigris, Vermilion, Ultramarine and Naples Yellow, my Classic Color Series. Rose Madder will be written in a similar format. I like to start with ancient colors and bring them to the modern day. Let me know what you think.
        Paula McHugh

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