We British as a nation have always liked to think of ourselves as excelling at freethinking, and breaking new ground. We hold a kind of rose-tinted affection for characters like ‘Alfred Russel Wallace… a public figure in England during the second half of the 19th century, known for his courageous views on scientific, social, and spiritualist subjects… His formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection… predated Charles Darwin’s published contributions‘.
Detail from Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Arcihpelago field study, 1854-1862 (Dutch East Indies)
Wallace, like Darwin and many others during the Victorian age, revelled in pioneering, swashbuckling tales of audacity and derring-do. In a similar mould, David Douglas, (of Douglas Fir fame) boldly went plant hunting:
‘Look, there’s the humble flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, whose rosy-red racemes mark the beginning of spring. This was introduced by David Douglas, as were lupins, California poppies and many of the conifers that are now staples of our arboretums and suburban gardens… Douglas paid for his discoveries with his life: he was killed in Hawaii at the age of 35 in a pit dug to trap wild bullocks.’ (Plant Hunters, Victoria Summerley, The Independent 2012)
Perhaps this independent, fighting spirit goes some way to explaining the British intractability and dislike of being ‘told what to do’, and our often obstinate refusal to have our national character ‘compromised’ in any way. On our travels through and past the Victorian age, we have taken the liberty of passing where, when and how we like, but remain sceptical of the rights of others to enjoy the same privileges in return.
Perhaps we believe that our role in developing significant scientific theories, ‘taking charge’ in the name of civilised society, and (when not meeting dramatic and bitter ends on our intrepid adventures) generally patronising the world at large and providing a kind of template for what an aspirational, civically-minded modern citizen should look like, are good enough reasons to continue.
In the C18, Like the British, the Dutch, the French and the Spanish were also busily building empires with the human wealth of regiments and commandeering small countries in honour of their sovereign rulers. Eminent plant hunters Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (accompanied by talented early botanical artists like Claude Aubriet) were expanding the plant palettes of their respective countries and creating incredible botanical art for the record.
So it seems that this outward looking, exploratory tendency has brought a world of diversity to our doorstep. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have been enough to sate our voracious appetites for novelty. George Shull (an American, no less) discovered something known as ‘hybrid vigour’ – the process of selecting desirable qualities through the mixing of material with distinct/diverse genetic differences to create a strong, uniform hybrid:
‘For over a century animal and plant biologists have known that mixing two diverse strains of a plant or animal can result in more vigorous and healthy offspring. This “hybrid vigour” was first shown by American Plant Scientist George Shull at the Station for Experimental Evolution, Cold Spring Harbor, in 1908 when he crossed two different corn strains resulting in a more vigorous hybrid…’
‘Hybrid offspring are called the first filial or “F1” generation, hence the term gardeners are familiar with when buying seed; ‘F1 hybrid’. To produce F1 hybrids, the farmer crosses two pure-bred parent strains. Often, these parent stocks are relatively small populations and hence are genetically rather uniform. For this reason, the hybrid offspring tend… to be more vigorous than their parents…’ The Difference: A Modern Genetic Perspective, channel 4, 2000
That said, it is difficult to quantify good and bad qualities, which in reality, are as far from binary as it is possible to get – is uniformity really a good quality, and is unattractiveness really a bad one if we are only going to eat something? Talking of bad qualities – we Europeans (for our sins) also spawned the Drumpft, who is allegedly descended from Scottish and German stock. Happily exported, and thoroughly naturalised abroad.
Genetic diversity (and indeed diversity in general) is also partly why we need open pollination and heirloom varieties too.
‘…we slowly came to realise that most modern varieties have been bred for the needs of large-scale chemical farming, where all aspects of the environment are controlled with fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
After all, supermarkets demand shiny fruit, that are tough to survive shipping and display, and so these are what are being bred. But these commercial varieties give poor results when grown on a home scale without all their chemicals. And whatever has happened to qualities such as flavour and tenderness?’ Real Seeds
Even British natives, (now frequently hybridised beyond recognition) like Dianthus gratianopolitanus, were accidentally introduced along with early Norman stonework imported from northern France for the construction of castles and fortresses after the invasion of England by Norman Vikings in 1066.
So some of our most famous ‘natives’ were, in fact, secret stowaways, introduced by accident. No one ever seems to agree on the precise origins of a plant and the same often applies to people. Indeed in many cases, it does not appear possible to make a definitive case.
Convallaria majalis is often considered to be native to the UK, however: ‘It is often difficult to separate native and alien plants and the map must be regarded as an approximation’ (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora)
Species seem to creep across continents and as climates change, they adapt. So what is a ‘true’ native – how can it be defined? Does it have inherent genetic weakness from millennia of breeding with only the true and ‘proper’ form, or does it enable noble and ‘pure’ lineage? Is a hybrid culture or material stronger because of its hybrid status? I have found investigation of this topic generates considerably more questions than it answers.
Jolly Old QE2, looking lovely. She’s a tiny bit German, you know.
Where exactly does the cutoff point lie, and is it ever possible to identify it? I am ‘White British’. But I am descended from Scotland, Ireland, Norfolk, (maybe some Dutch) Newcastle (maybe some Viking or Northern European), and Lancashire. And those are just the parts of my lineage I know about – should I decide to research my ancestry further, I’m sure I’d find a few surprises.
It’s complicated. Like me and my fellow inhabitants of the British Isles, many plant species are now completely naturalised and are not only valuable in terms of interest but now fully adapted to the climactic meteorological fripperies and caprices of the UK, of which there are multitudes (just in case you hadn’t noticed.)
Time, ‘What Science Says About Race and Genetics’, Nicholas Wade, 2014
Channel 4 ‘The Difference’, 2000
The Independent ‘The Plant Hunters’ Victoria Summerley, 2012
Real Seeds Online
Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora
The Origin of Plants, by Maggie Campbell-Culver
The Douglas Archives
As an ‘evegalist’, I should really be extolling the invernal virtues of curly kale and brussels sprouts, but my heat and light longings induce visions of Carribean promise, and the sweetest of all bromeliads, the pineapple.
The pineapple is an unlikely symbol of the British will to succeed in growing something entirely inappropriate against all the odds. For me, it is synonymous with ostentatious carved Victorian gateposts and finials, carnival, glamorous cocktails, the tropics, Barry Manilow – and by loose tropical-themed association, Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’. I’m sure I recall pineapple motifs in the 1980’s, too, but I may have just made that up*. I certainly remember plenty of school discos serving cheese and pineapple hedgehogs and doing a ridiculous dance to Black Lace’s classic ‘Agadoo’, which seemed to involve a great deal of inexplicable pineapple-pushing.
The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is a fascinating plant, which lends itself naturally to design, (even harbouring the famously harmonious Fibonacci sequence, manifest in the ovules). The sequence is visible as raised, diamond shaped segments on the husk, which connected, form diagonal spirals around the entire fruit.
‘The Paraná-Paraguay river drainage basin is thought to be the region where the pineapple originated. It was also the home of the Tupi-Guaraní Indian tribe. . . ‘Ananas’ comes from the Tupi word nanas, meaning ‘excellent fruit’, as recorded by André Thevet in 1555. . . ‘comosus’ means tufted, and refers to the stem of the fruit. . . (it) is a perennial monocotyledonous plant with terminal inflorescence and fruit.’¹
Christopher Columbus, on his epic and impossible-seeming sea voyage, was the first European to taste a pineapple in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1843 – but people didn’t figure out how to grow them until 1719, when the first greenhouse fruits were cultivated.
Fruit and vegetable growing went on to become a competitive sport amongst the Victorians, who strove to grow all the most elusive and exotic hothouse fruit and flowers in order to impress their eminent houseguests. ‘Rare, exotic and hard to grow, Pineapples were a symbol of great status and wealth in Victorian times. ‘A pineapple on your dining table meant you were a person of discernment, style and affluence’².
If money were no object, and I could buy any house, anywhere, my money would have to be on the Dunmore Pineapple, Falkirk. Not only is it an immensely eccentric piece of British architecture, it presides over a huge walled garden, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) used to house numerous pineapple pits and glasshouses. And you can actually stay here, in the gardener’s annexes flanking the pineapple. Heaven.
‘The Pineapple is an elaborate summerhouse of two storeys, built for the 4th Earl of Dunmore. Though classical and orthodox at ground level, it grows slowly into something entirely vegetable; conventional architraves put out shoots and end as prickly leaves of stone. It is an eccentric work, of undoubted genius, built of the very finest masonry. To house the gardeners, stone bothies were built on either side of The Pineapple and it is in these that you stay. . .
It probably began as a pavilion of one storey, dated 1761, and only grew its fruity dome after 1777, when Lord Dunmore was brought back, forcibly, from serving as Governor of Virginia. There, sailors would put a pineapple on the gatepost to announce their return home. Lord Dunmore, who was fond of a joke, announced his return more prominently’³
When I think of some of the achievements of the Victorian age – the incredible, labyrinthine and still-functioning drains under London, numerous engineering conundrums in the form of improbable bridges, huge, towering iron behemoths and multiple industry-fuelling engines of mammoth proportions – growing a pineapple seems small beer. Horticulturally, however, it is no mean feat. Dedication and constant cossetting is mandatory for pineapple maintenance. I have seen it done with great success at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, where they have what they believe to be the United Kingdom’s ‘…only pineapple pit, the only working, manure-heated pineapple pit in Britain today. It was unearthed in 1991 and architectural and horticultural historians spent many months researching the history of its construction and technology. The first structure here was probably built in the eighteenth century’†.
From this incredibly labour intensive and high maintenance Victorian affectation, the pineapple grew to symbolise wealth and fecundity, which (in a highly ironic about turn) in the modern world is more likely to be seen as emblematic of an excessive consumer thirst for exotic curiosity, and comes at a price: the ubiquity of intensive farming, monoculture, environmentally and socially damaging growing practices and unsustainable air-miles. Maybe I will have a kale and sprout superfood powershake instead of a piña colada after all.
Track of the Month
Wham! ‘Club Tropicana‘ Party staple of my school discos in the 1980’s, and featuring George Michael, object of my (sadly misdirected) pre-adolescent desires.
Book of the Month
‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life’, an inspiring book by one of my favourite authors of all time, Barbara Kingsolver. A highly political slow-food rollercoaster about the Kingsolver family’s decision to take a militant pro-local food stance and give the twos-up to massive agribusiness, intensive farming, chemical-peddling, gene-manipulating multinational corporations. An illuminating book to inspire and educate fledgling heirloom gardeners and smallholders to continue with their struggle to grow diverse, locally produced food selected for flavour, and perhaps even adapted to local conditions. (The Seed Savers exchange is well worth a look if crop diversity and heritage cultivars are your bag).
*I did a quick poll on social media about this, and found that my memory was not as bad as had I feared.
The National Trust for Scotland
¹Natural History Museum
²†Lost Gardens of Heligan
³The Landmark Trust
Anton Seder Prints, Images courtesy Panteek, Wikimedia Commons
All other photos: Wikimedia Commons
There is a freedom and creativity that resonates in the naming of apple and pear cultivars which I have long appreciated. I like to revel in the Anglo-Saxon olde-englishness of these names, which are frequently punctuated with an insolent gallic shrug or a royal continental flourish. These vivid, descriptive names make it easy to imagine what inspired our ancient, not-so-ancient and new-world growers to christen their apples so peculiarly and poetically. There is also a bawdiness and an undercurrent of innuendo in some of these names that definitely has an appeal all of its own.
So here is my pome-poem to celebrate my love of this eccentric British tradition.
Redstreak, Forty Shilling
Ten Commandments, Bishop’s Thumb
Swan’s Egg, Princess
Holly, Allen’s Everlasting
Book of the Month
The Herefordshire Pomona
‘The Herefordshire Pomona’ – containing original figures and descriptions of the most esteemed Kinds of Apples and Pears’, by Robert Hogg and Henry Graves Bull, first published between 1876 and 1885 is currently on sale on ABE books at a mere £13,000.00. But it is in very good condition.
Track of the Month
Apple Stretching, by Grace Jones
Paul Cézanne, ‘Apples and Oranges’
‘Apples and Oranges. . . combines modernity and sumptuous beauty. . . the most important still life produced by the artist in the late 1890’s’ (Musée d’Orsay)
Plant of the Month
Malus domestica. A blazing glory of cultivars and varieties.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Musée D’orsay
Who knew that jet – a hard, black, organically-derived mineraloid commonly found in the gothic cliffs of Whitby in North Yorkshire, is formed from the fossilised remains of Araucaria araucana (Monkey Puzzle) tree?
‘. . .Araucaria is derived from the Arauco region of central Chile, where the Araucani Indians live. This is the land of the monkey puzzle tree (A. araucana), so named because the prickly, tangled branches would be difficult for a monkey to climb. It has been suggested that an armor of dagger-like leaves on ancient araucariads might have discouraged hungry South American herbivorous dinosaurs, such as the enormous Argentinosaurus that weighed an estimated eighty to a hundred tons!’
The Araucariacae family encompasses three genera: Araucaria, Agathis and Wollemia. Within these genera some incredible ancient trees can be found, some of which are at least equal in their outlandish beauty to A. araucana. Living fossil Wollemia nobilis (discovered in Australia in 1994) is definitely one of them.
‘Fossil evidence indicates that the Aracauria family reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, between 200 and 65 million years ago, with worldwide distributions. At the end of the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs became extinct, so did the Araucariaceae in the Northern Hemisphere’.
So, Araucaria araucana probably became extinct in Whitby between 200 and 65 million years ago, and mindblowingly, the fossilised remains of those extinct trees now yield significant jet deposits along a very short stretch of North Yorkshire coastline, between Runswick Bay and just to the North of Whitby. The Romans loved it – York being the centre of the Roman trade – and Neolithic/Bronze Age examples of jet jewellery have also been found.
Jet was highly prized by the remarkably gothically-minded Victorians, who loved a bit of hard black shoegazing. Queen Victoria famously wore it among her widow’s weeds on the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and its subsequent links with mourning and Victoriana have been set in stone ever since.
Whitby itself is more or less the epicentre of English gothic high-kitsch, with vampire and ghost tours whispering their terrors on blackboards advertised around each cobbled bend on every Whitby street.
I have often wondered if the gothic legacy of jet itself is partly responsible for Whitby’s morbid obsession with all things crepuscular and dark. Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel ‘Dracula’, famously partly set at Whitby Abbey, obviously has more than a bit-part to play in the nocturnal notoriety of the town’s undeniable witching-hour romanticism.
It was a stroke of genius that Stoker chose Whitby, with all its associations with mourning, death and disaster, to frame his novel. His treatment of the town itself is decidedly anthropomorphic, with the town emanating a ghostly sea-misty malevolence compounded by many tales of shipwreck, gore-soaked whaling voyages seeking yields of whalebone for stultifying, suffocating corsets and stays, as well as blubber oil for lamp burners. Throw in a few biblical coastal storms and you have a potent briny literary brew which for me is completely unrivalled in atmosphere.
Luckily for Stoker and his iconic gothic novel, he seems to have divined Whitby’s ongoing knack for misfortune, which has only served to reinvigorate the powerful and magical dark mysticism invoked by ‘Dracula’. In 1914 Whitby Abbey (a glorious manifestation of incredible architectural gothic provenance and having survived centuries of assaults, including The Reformation) sustained further damage from two German battlecruisers Vann der Tann and Derfflinger. A hospital ship, Rohilla, was also sunk in the bay during the attack.
You can certainly feel a very peculiar ambience at the Abbey, if you brave the 199 steps to the top – even surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. Perhaps it is the dishevelled countenance of the Abbey, with all the sea and wind-pocked headstones and the merciless position high up on those precipitous cliffs. Or perhaps my knowledge of the Abbey’s tumultuous and tortured history is seeping in? I’m never quite sure.
What I am sure of is that Whitby is one of my favourite British seaside towns. As a child all those gothic tales and the beautiful black-as-night jet jewellery caught and charmed my imagination just as much as they do now. It was also a brilliant day-out escape from Hebden Bridge – which, as you will know if you have read my blog before – has a personal legacy of bleak gothic romance. Thank you very much rain, bleak industrial heritage, desolate moorland, Brontës, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes – and Kate Bush, you didn’t help either. From one cruel, windswept romance to another. HEATHCLIFF!!!
Plants of the Week
Book of the Week
‘Dracula’, Bram Stoker
Track of the Week
‘Night Shift’ from the 1983 album ‘Nocturne’, Siouxsie and the Banshees
‘Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire’ by George Scarth French
‘Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel’, James A.M. Whistler
Whitby Abbey: English Heritage
Corsetry: The Vintage Fashion Guild
Terminology: Checked using Oxford English Dictionary
Paintings: MyPaintings, Tate
Jet jewellery: British Museum, Wikimedia Commons
History of Jet, Geology: The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, and british-history.ac.uk
Taxonomy/Distribution of Araucaria: The Gymnosperm Database
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons and my own
Other websites and relevant articles, click on the link
I was disproportionately overjoyed when I stumbled upon Butea monosperma, a gorgeous tree which in India seems to embody the idea that the plants that grow naturally in the immediate locale should be used and revered where they grow, often to celebrate and facilitate necessities and local custom. Butea monosperma is not only emblematic of two important Indian regions – Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand – but is, both spiritually and in a practical sense, completely interwoven with the routines and rituals of daily life.
Butea monosperma is a flaming, beauteous beacon of floriferous ornament, as well as boasting numerous utilities and an entire pharmacopia of medicinal applications – among which (unromantically) is a hemorrhoid preparation made from the fruit. Fortunately, and in favour of romance, some of her common names are highly evocative; the most notable being ‘Flame of the Forest’. She is also known regionally as Palash and Dhak¹, and is, perhaps bizarrely, named after John Stuart – the third Earl of Bute, and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1762 until 1763.
So even her taxonomy is intertwined with the fascinating history of the British Empire and India’s shackled relationship with it. John Stuart (1712-1792) famously negotiated the end of the Seven Year’s War with France and her allies in 1754:
‘The French and British East India Companies and their respective Indian allies were at war with each other. The East India Company led by Robert Clive defeat the French ally, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the battle of Plassey ending the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal. This is judged to be one of the pivotal events leading to the formation of the British Empire in South Asia. The resulting central administration and governance starts a process that leads eventually to the formation of unified India’.
Excerpt from http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/index.php/24/timeline/. Read more about the incredible history of the East India Company and the formation of the British Empire using the link above. Also see BBC 2’s current exploration of the birth of empire through the lens of the East India Company:
The Third Earl of Bute’s time in office was notoriously short. He was much maligned – or even hated – in Parliament, until his resignation after only 11 months. He was also a Scotsman, which may or may not have been an advantage in Parliament at the time. (Speculation suggests the latter).
Unlike the poor old third Earl of Bute (luckily for Butea) she is much loved, and still employed in countless capacities. Our ‘Flame of the Forest’ also goes by the moniker ‘Bastard Teak’, (presumably partly because she never rots of succumbs to the unpleasantries of podiatric fungi).The wood is so hard and resistant to rot that countless tools and implements are made from it². In a country where monsoon conditions can cause persistent problems with mould and rot during the rainy season, this must be invaluable.
Maybe we could introduce her to Hebden Bridge? The good folk of t’Bridge could certainly do with a top-class rot-proof hardwood to make their famous clogs, ‘worn by Yorkshire folk long before industry and machinery invaded that county of broad acres’, as it’s monsoon conditions year-round in the Calder Valley. However, it is sub-arctic as well, so it may not be a match made in heaven. Incidentally, I had a Saturday job at Walkley’s clog factory in Hebden Bridge when I was 16.
Photograph from the Imperial War Museum archive collection:
Because of Butea monosperma’s resistance to rot and entropy, her wood is routinely used for water-bearing vessels and appliances, drainage and pipework. Butea wood is noteworthy for being used to make well curbs and water scoops, and deteriorates incredibly slowly. So yes, perfect for Yorkshire.
The flowers are crushed and used to make dyes³ for religious festivals such as the festival of colours (Holi), interior paint and even has a role in funerary rituals. Where mourners have no incarnation of the deceased but are assured that their loved one is dead, a piece of Butea wood is substituted and cremated in place of a body. The tree itself is also associated with the Hindu fire god, Agni¹.
The traditionally English name of ‘Parrot Tree’ refers to Butea monosperma’s beautiful beak-like red flowers, emanating from massed stalks with dark green cup-like calices. Myriad ‘beaks’ radiate from the mass of stalks, conjuring up visions of gruesome pirates angrily dismembering their noisy avian familiars, debeaking poor old Polly and chums in a bloodthirsty and merciless frenzy. (Or perhaps that’s just my riotous and slightly ridiculous imagination running wild).
Continuing along the avian theme, Butea is an ugly duckling. Gangly and awkward in December and January when the tree is denuded of leaves and flowers, the gnarled silvery-grey bark only accentuates what is essentially an ungainly form. Messy and unfocused, the limbs grow in all directions and with a distinct lack of elegance. This phase is thankfully short. As the flowers crowning the upper canopy of the tree start to appear in February and March, the apex of each tree seen en masse clearly justify the name ‘Flame of the Forest’, creating the illusion of waves of flame.
Butea monosperma is native to tropical and subtropical regions – more specifically parts of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. She belongs to the Leguminosae family, or Papilionideae. Other genera within the family include Acacia, Cercis (and a tropical vine wildly and rudely named Clitoria). According to http://www.theplantlist.org/ there are literally hundreds of other noteworthy friends and relations, too.
Butea monosperma is not only a beautiful tree, but provides seemingly endless resources for the people who are lucky enough to live alongside it. I have only touched on some of the uses of this versatile plant and, in particular, the medicinal applications merit significantly more detailed investigation. I hope to collaborate further on this subject with scientists and botanists in the near future.
Butea monosperma inspires artists, too:
Ranjani Shettar: http://talwargallery.com/ranjaniflame-pr/
Track of the Week
Light my Fire, The Doors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb5uJ4b78Q0
Book of the Week
The Strangler Vine, M.J Carter. A book about the oppressive and conflicting dilemmas of the Sepoys and the British military in India during the height of the East India Company’s powers. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-review-the-strangler-vine-by-mj-carter-9102257.html
A collective representing small-scale forest farmers and co-operatives in Rajasthan, India, is harvesting natural products and promoting the understanding of their native forest plants (including Butea monosperma) through carefully controlled, sustainable trade: http://www.samarthak.org/?page_id=46
‘The Rajasthan Forest Produce Processing Group Support Society ( Samarthak Samiti ) is a registered organization (under Act 1956), which is active in six districts of the state with the broad objective of providing guidance and motivation to smaller organizations, cooperative societies and such other societies, which are engaged with minor forest produce collection and devoted to the cause of biodiversity conservation’
Other relevant links:
Graphic illustration of Butea monosperma: http://salliesart.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/butea-monosperma.html
On Gardening in India: http://www.cityfarmer.org/indiagarden.html
Other articles on Butea monosperma: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/when-satpura-blushes
¹On Etymology, colloquialisms, general usage, medicinal applications, customs and ritual uses of Butea monosperma, Vinay Ranjam’s plant survey document for the Central National Herbarium, (Howrah) has been indispensible:
²Applications & uses from references kindly recommended by Indian Botanists via
³On natural dye:
General information on indigenous uses of Butea monosperma:
Since we discovered how to transform plants into articles of clothing, as an inherently creative species, we have probably also pondered how we can beautify and enhance an unnecessarily dull piece of garb and elevate it in order to make a more decorative and interesting garment. Perhaps rather like the lady in this wonderful Mexican-inspired assemblage. Creative.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of dyeing comes from Mohenjo-daro, or ‘The Mound of the Dead’ in the Sindh province in Pakistan.
Textile (cotton) artefacts have been recovered from the archaeological site, which was a huge settlement and one of the first notable early ‘cities’ in the modern sense of the word. The artefacts recovered from Sindh have included pieces of cotton dyed with a madder-based (Rubia tinctorum) vegetable dye, and Indigo, (Indigofera tinctoria) from an ancient dyeworks:
‘One of the greatest accomplishments of the subcontinent was the development of the technology of dyeing and patterning of fabric. This is evident from the discovery of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro. . Indigofera tinctoria, source of the most fabled dye, grew in abundance on the banks of the River Indus. Over time various embroidery techniques were developed in the quest to further embellish the fabrics’ (Article from The Free Library, Bilgrami, Noorjehan, 2008)
Common madder (Rubia tinctorum) produces anthraquinone pigments in its roots, one of them being alizarin (1,2 dihydroxy anthraquinone) which has been used for dyeing textiles since 2000 B.C.’
The incredibly long, thick roots of the common madder (Rubia tinctorum) are a source of red dyes generally known as ‘rose madder’ and ‘turkey red‘, the intensity of the final colour depending on the type and amount of mordant (dye fixing agent) used.
A celebration of colour in India, the spring festival of Holi (translated as ‘burning’) sees the fury and vibrancy of reds and oranges, cadmiums, and siennas, moody blues and verdant greens thrown every which way over the human body.
Primarily, Holi is a celebration of the beginning of the new season. There is also evidence in Indian literature that it has been a celebration of agriculture, good spring harvests and fertility – (which has latterly been transposed onto married women). In the Hindu faith, it is commonly seen as a time to enjoy the new proliferation of spring colours.
Some participants in Holi still prepare plant-based pigments derived from Butea monosperma, a beautiful tree with flaming blossoms indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical Asia. The flowers are crushed to yield a bright yellow dye.
The festival ushers in the dominance of good over evil and the arrival of spring. Traditionally it is a day of forgiveness and an opportunity to socialise, heal rifts in relationships, and generally have a darn good hoot. Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, and is closely linked with the full moon falling closest to it.
As a colour steeped in mystery and royal mythology, purple is an interesting colour case history. ‘Royal Purple’ or Tyrian Purple, was the colour of choice for the gods and kings of the ancient Greeks (and more latterly of diminutive purple pop-professor Prince – legend has it he still insists of Tyrean methods to embellish his raiments. (Not actually true).
The purple dye known as Tyrean or Royal Purple was extracted from the mucous glands of Mediterranean Murex brandaris (a species of mollusc) by the Canaanites and Phoenicians. It was initially extremely costly and time consuming to extract – four million molluscs for one pound of dye (hence the preserve of the regal).
The pauper’s version of Royal Purple could be simulated using a lichen, Roccella tinctoria. Unfortunately it was just as stinky and unpleasant as the Phoenician city of Tyre (famed for Tyrean Purple) and its overwhelming stench of rotting shellfish, because it requires weeks of steeping in ammonia (or piss, to you and me) for the colour to bind.
While Royal Purple is not derived from plants, composite purple dyes can be made by mixing blue dye extracted from Isatis tinctoria (woad) and Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) with Rubia tinctorum, (common madder).
Other plants capable of producing purple shades are Morus nigra (Mulberry), Bryonia dioica (white bryony) and Caesalpinia echinata (Brazilwood) using sulphuric acid (or vitriol) as a mordant. I often employ vitriol myself on people I don’t like. Not the acid version – that would be GBH. Just the less harmful ‘ascerbic tongue’, which runs in the family. And I usually keep it to myself, (where possible).
‘Mauveine’, ‘Perkin’s Mauve’, or ‘Aniline Purple’ was the first synthetic chemical dye to be invented. It was discovered by William Henry Perkin by accident in 1856, in a failed attempt to sythesize quinine.
Usually I include a Hebden Bridge quip but I can’t find many reasons to joke this week. Before the height of the Industrial Revolution in West Yorkshire, I’ve heard anecdotes that the river Calder was hopping with salmon. From 1850 onwards, there were no fish stocks left, largely as a result of the chemical runoff industrial dyeworks discharged along the banks.
As a child growing up in Hebden Bridge, I still saw what appeared to be similar practices happening from time to time well into the 1980’s. Apparently fish are now beginning to reappear.
Track of the Week
‘Purple Rain’, by Prince
Also highly recommended viewing: ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ a triptych of programmes with Dr. James Fox commissioned by BBC4 in 2012.
Book of the Week
‘The Colour Purple’, by Alice Walker
More Blogs on Plant Dyes and the Iconography of Colour
I have used what appear to be reliable sources, you can find further information on these by clicking on the links. Where I have quoted directly I have provided further information.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, attributions stated where necessary
Have you ever heard of Extreme Makeover? In a nutshell, it is about aesthetically-challenging people who have had a gutfull of being ‘social outcasts’ because of their unfortunate, or at best plain, countenances.
The fairy godmother of plastic surgery visits her scalpel of sparkly benevolence upon these poor poky-folks and hey presto! Flappyjowells bignose is miraculously transformed into a perfectly-primped identikit pageant princess (or male equivalent).
Plants undergo similar feats of transmogrification, but unlike Extreme Makeover the finished product usually ends as a more useful manifestation. Although I love him, I’m not sure this applies to infamous plastic surgery survivor Pete Burns (pictured below)
Crazy Pete has reminded me that rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) , for example, constitutes a rich and interesting seam of black plant magic.
Rubber is native to Native to the Amazon region; Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and is cultivated in large plantations. The sap is tapped from strips on the bark of the tree (clearly visible as diagonal stripes on the tree trunks).
‘Tapping begins when trees are 5–8 years old . . . and increases every year until a maximum at about 20 years, then yield sustained for 40–50 years or more. Tapping consists of removal by excision of a thin cut of bark about 1 mm deep at regular intervals, thus opening the latex vessels in the bark. . . arranged in concentric cylinders and run in counter-clockwise spirals up the trunk. Usually the cuts run half-way around the trunk, but may encircle the tree’ (Purdue University)
‘. . .latex coagulates with the aid of acetic acid, formic acid, and alum. . Seeds are source of Para Rubber seed oil, recommended for manufacture of soap. Although poisonous, seeds can be eaten as a famine food after processing. Boiling removes the poison and releases the oil which can be utilized for illumination.’ (Purdue University)
Rubber is of course infinitely malleable, and so the product range is indeterminately gargantuan.
Modern pneumatic tyres are generally a mixture of materials, including synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, as well as carbon black and other chemical compounds. Carbon black is almost pure elemental carbon in ‘colloidal particle form’, made by charring organic material.
Of course there are the obvious everyday rubber items we take for granted – rubber wellington boots, buttons on electronic devices, and rubber bands – to name but a few. Then there are the distinctly non-traditional uses. Look away now if you’re squeamish, (you can’t unsee this once you’ve looked).
What I really love about this picture is the ‘Calamari’ sign – calamari infamous for being. . . well, rubbery. These enterprising chaps have mixed leather and latex with applomb. Congratulations, boys.
Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is another amazing plant, used in the modern textile industry as the core material for natural fibre clothing all over the world. It is a beautiful plant belonging to the illustrious genus Malvacae, which includes floral stunners Hibiscus and Abutilon.
Unfortunately the cotton industry is and has been notoriously bloody, as well as being demanding to grow and subsequently environmentally unsustainable as a crop: ‘More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop. Today cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land but uses a quarter of the world’s pesticides!’
‘The cotton trade was a driving force in the Industrial Revolution and helped to finance the British Empire. It was the mainstay of the slave trade and contributed to the American civil war’ (Eden Project)
Here comes the Hebden Bridge joke. Hebdeners: we even have the cotton industry to blame for the addition of Todmorden as a stop on the Leeds-Manchester railway line. One of the Fielden Bros, a Todmorden based worsted and textile company – John Fielden – was on the railway’s board of directors and used his influence to ensure that Todmorden had a station.
John was an interesting chap, too, and was ‘a radical reformer, a supporter of universal manhood suffrage, promoter of the 10 Hours Act of 1847, and opponent of the 1834 New Poor Law Act’ (The National Archives). Human rights and conservaton issues are not something you see modern companies campaigning for enough, with the exception of a handful of forward thinkers like Katherine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood and creative director of Eco Age Livia Firth.
Another bloody trade, diamonds. Diamonds consist of highly compressed carbon molecules, and only form at extremely high temperatures in the Earth’s mantle at least 100 miles below the surface. Some organic carbon is made from ancient microorganisms (plants and animals), which reappears hundreds of millions of years later as eclogitic diamonds. Other types of carbon come from stardust and meteorites. Poetic.
Album of the Week
An album instead of the usual track: Rubber Soul, by The Beatles
Many of Eva Hesse ‘s works were made using latex. Here you can watch one of SFMOMA’s curators talking about her use of the material, and read about her extremely interesting but short life in this Telegraph article from 2009.
Book of the Week
An account of the psychological fallout of the slave trade, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison
Kew, Purdue University (Rubber)
The Eden Project , The National Archives (Cotton)
Geology.com, About.com, photius.com (Diamonds)
Images Wikimedia Commons
Eva Hesse (SFMOMA)