What Is Red Madder?

Lumara Lee

Red madder, or rubia tinctorum, is an evergreen perennial in the rubiaceae family. It is native to southern Europe and countries in the Mediterranean. The red madder plant is chiefly used to make a bright red dye, although it also has some medicinal properties. Its long, thin roots have been used to dye cloth for thousands of years. Different shades of pink, purple, and red can be obtained from red madder roots depending on how it is prepared and applied.

Ancient Egyptian mummies were often wrapped in cloth dyed in red madder.
Ancient Egyptian mummies were often wrapped in cloth dyed in red madder.

The madder plant has small yellow flowers that bloom in the summer. It produces multiple stems and its leaves grow in star-shaped whorls. The plant climbs by using coarse hooks on its stems and leaves. After blooming, the red madder forms shiny green berries resembling peppercorns that turn black toward the end of the growing season.

Red madder roots are ground up to make the dye known as Turkey red and rose madder. Alizarin in the roots creates the red dye. Roots may be harvested after they have been growing for at least three years, but waiting five years is optimum. The fresh root is yellow and turns a reddish-brown after it dries. Caution should be used when handling the plant because the prickly leaves can cause a rash.

Archeologists discovered ancient Egyptian mummies that were wrapped in cloth dyed with red madder. Linens found in King Tutankhamen's tomb, which dates from around 1350 B.C., contained vestiges of red madder dye. Libyan women in ancient times commonly wore shawls dyed with the red madder pigment. Women in Ireland used a paste of madder root to paint their fingernails. It is believed that the druids used cloth dyed with madder in some of their rituals.

The teeth and bones of animals that eat madder turn a reddish color. Some nineteenth century physicians took advantage of this property to study bone growth and development. At one time, white hawks and horses were fed madder to redden their talons, beaks, teeth, and hooves. Sheep were also fed madder to tint their wool.

Madder root can be used medicinally as well, although its use as a healing herb isn't common. It can be ingested to increase menstrual flow and the secretion of bile. The plant has been used in the treatment of kidney stones and contains diuretic properties that have been useful in treating edema. It also has a mild laxative effect.

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