Monday, November 12, 2012

The Roots of the Madder

Well, I finally got my little madder bed dug up a few days ago. It’s only about 3 feet wide by 4 feet long or so and I had only planted 5 crowns in it but it took all afternoon to harvest. The plants had died back to straw and it was pretty easy to clear off down to the soil. Then I triple-dug every bit to make sure I had all the precious pieces of root. I ended up with a bucket full:


Madder (Rubia tinctorum) roots are surprisingly easy to distinguish from anything else. When damp they are translucent red-brown, juicy and brittle and with a thin yellow core which turns red on contact with air. The best ones are as thick as a pencil but I picked everything down to the skinniest bits. I didn’t want to waste any of my precious harvest! I saved out most of the crowns and split a few into more than one piece. You can see the old stems and the yellow shoots as well as the lovely thick roots, which I pruned a little before I replanted it:


I wanted to expand the bed more and also to give some away to friends who had requested it. That’s how I got my first few plants about 15 years ago so I always try to pass on the favour. They will grow from seeds but this was the first year I actually had any good black “berries”. Unfortunately they didn’t get harvested because I was away on vacation when they were ripe.

After digging up the patch I smoothed it out and applied some lime. Our soil is quite acid (blueberries and rhododendrons do very well) but madder likes chalky soil best. Then I replanted the big crowns and a few smaller ones and patted them home to grow for another 2 or 3 years. You can see why it would be best to have a whole plot full of madder plants if you wanted to dye with it often! Then you can dig up part of it every year while leaving the rest to grow. I’ll top-dress the bed with compost and manure in early spring because I don’t have any ready at the moment. They won’t mind waiting over winter. Madder is very hardy and relatively undemanding as long as it gets a reasonable amount of food and water.

Meanwhile back at the bucket of roots, I rinsed everything a number of times under the water tap:


This doesn’t just get off the dirt but some of the yellow and brown dyes in the roots that will prevent you from getting good reds. I even rinsed them again after chopping them up:


You can see how much of the undesirable colour is still there. I didn’t go too crazy though since I actually like oranges and browns! I recommend chopping the roots right away while they are still juicy and brittle. They are very tough when dried. (Ask me how I know!) I use a number of tools including pruning shears, garden snips, a mini food chopper (saved for craft use, not food) and my new secret weapon:


An Alaskan ulu, the Eskimo women’s knife. My mother-in-law brought it back from one of her travels and I’ve found it very useful for mincing garlic and herbs as well as doing a great job on the madder root – at least as good as the food chopper did and more quickly too. The ulu is very sharp! Now the chopped roots are drying before I package them for storage:


I stir them around as often as I remember and watch carefully. It’s been rainy and damp so I can’t dry it outside. Might have to break out the dehydrator if it takes too long. Don’t want them to mould! That would be a big waste of several years and a lot of work to grow them. No, I’m not planning to dye with my newly-harvested madder right this minute. Did I mention that I love the smell of freshly chopped madder roots? It’s kind of earthy and quite distinctive.

In other crafty news, I’ve got the white cotton warp for my new bedroom curtains wound and am now threading the reed. 785 ends. Good thing my hands remember what to do. It’s been awhile since I’ve woven anything at all. Yes, I warp front-to-back. For most things it’s easier on this loom. I thread the reed from the front and then put a cushion on the treadles and sit on them inside the loom frame to thread the heddles. Sounds weird but that brings the heddles close to my eye level making it very easy to see what I’m doing. The loom frame has a big “doorway” on each side so it’s not hard to get in there, at least so far. I’m still pretty flexible for a granny. Heh. This is going to take a couple of days to finish warping because I’m taking care to do it right. No point in making mistakes.

Speaking of mistakes, Debbie is still wearing my skirt so it isn’t getting re-hemmed yet. I’m still somewhat ticked off with it. I’ll get over it. Eventually.

I did finish my Black Spruce Shawl and it turned out just the way I envisioned. Pretty neat! However I haven’t been able to get a good photo. It’s been dingy and dark and the shawl is also dark. I need to photograph this outside and it keeps raining. So it’ll have to wait awhile. I’m also nearly done T-Man’s green socks. None too soon either! He’s showing me some very thin spots on several of his older pairs. If it was just a hole, I would mend it. But it’s not really worth mending socks where the sole has the wool pretty much worn off leaving only the nylon content to hold them together.

I need to discover what my next knitting project is going to be. Apart from yet another pair of socks that is.


Heather said...

Thanks for all the info on growing madder. I just dug up an old rhubarb plant and got tons of roots, which I am going to chop and freeze, I think, if freezing doesn't screw up the colour. It is too rainy to get anything to dry here.

Sharon in Surrey said...

Wouldn't it be nice to have another week of that hot, sunny weather?? I remember trying to break up madder roots with a hammer waaaaay back when we could buy such things at Romney Wools in Vancouver!!! They were harder than iron & in the end, I tossed most of them out! Got my red from cochineal & browns from onion skins instead!! *&#$**$ stuff!!

Louisa said...

Rhubarb root is a really potent yellow, Heather. It shouldn't hurt it at all to freeze rather than dry. Some things are even better that way.

Sorry you were defeated by the old madder, Sharon. It's so much easier to break it up when it's fresh. Bet you got some nice colours from onion skins and cochineal though.