Plants for inks and dyes at the Horniman Museum
“Beautiful building set in lovely gardens… In suburbia with everyone from school groups, artists, and solo travellers visiting.” – TripAdvisor review, 2019
A few years ago I wrote text for the new garden displays at the Horniman Museum in south London, focusing on plants used in medicine, for materials, for food and in dyes. Fast forward to today, and I have a garden with space to try out some planting of my own, so I’ve been looking back at the Horniman project for inspiration.
At the time, I had recently worked with Neill Richardson and Matt Bigg on the new museum in Mildenhall, Suffolk. Neill was now designing a major exhibition for the Horniman, ‘The Body Adorned: Dressing London’, and Matt was creating the graphics for the new outdoor displays.
The Horniman’s team had researched and designed their new gardens so that they reflected the collections inside the museum, linking indoors and outdoors in a creative way. The museum’s Arts & Crafts style sunken garden was the perfect place to tell the stories of useful and beautiful plants.
For me, the dye plants with their combination of chemistry, history and culture, were especially fascinating. The introduction to this section of the garden reads:
We have filled the sunken garden with a palette of plants and flowers used traditionally to make dye. Today, while cheaper synthetic dyes are more common, people still prize plant dyes for their rich hues.
Dyeing can be a complex process, often needing a bonding chemical called a mordant to dye fibres a long-lasting colour or a particular shade. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient civilisations had mastered the techniques long before anyone understood the underlying chemistry.
Each section of colour had its own panel, for example with reds (above):
Red dyes are often hidden in the roots and bark of the least red-looking plants. For two of the main groups of these plants, which include Safflower and Dyer’s Madder, chemicals called quinones are what gives them their red-producing property.
Madder originates from the Middle East. The first synthetic dye, formulated in 1868, used a quinone called alizarin from the roots of Dyer’s Madder.
3000-year-old linen cloths dyed with Safflower have been discovered in Egypt, and this plant also supplied the red for blusher in China as long as 4000 years ago. Today the Chinese common name for Safflower ‘yanzhi’ remains a word for blusher.
There was also an image of a basket made by the Naga people from Burma and India, who used varieties of madder to create red and pink textile dyes.
After some rounds of editing, all the text and design came together, and the new gardens were ready to explore. The team had indicated the plant groupings with a clever border of colourful twine, and listed the plants that they would be in each bed:
- Red-producing plants: Safflower, Dyer’s Madder, Henna, Roselle, Himalayan Rhubarb
- Brown-producing plants: Pomegranate, Iris, Stags Horn Sumac, Guava, Shallots, Onion, Tea
- Blue-producing plants: Woad, Indigo, Dyer’s knotweed, False Indigo, Elder, Privet, Hollyhocks
- Yellow-producing plants: Saffron Crocus, Canadian Goldenrod, Weld, Smokebush, Mahonia, Japanese Barberry, Darwin’s Barberry, Tickseed, Dyer’s Broom, Menzies Larkspur
There was also a fascinating note about dye from pomegranate: Red-skinned pomegranates yield a surprising range of dye colours. Extracts from the bark and rind make yellow-fawn shades, or with a mordant (a chemical which helps bind dye to fibres) give golden yellows, greys and blacks.
So what am I going to plant in my own dye garden? Rather than textile dyes, I think I’m interested in dyes for inks – perhaps linking to the fun I’ve had experimenting with the chemistry of indicators made from red cabbage. If you soak the red cabbage water into paper (as my friend and chemist colleague Andreas Tretiakov showed me), you can paint onto the dried paper with household chemicals and end up with all kinds of colours.
Of course, this chemistry would be very different, but dye expert Eve Studd of Cornhill Crafts has already kindly given me advice to follow and I am looking forward to starting my own plant patch full of colourful potential. She has a booklet you can buy via her website www.cornhillcrafts.co.uk, Discovering Natural Dyes, describing dozens of dye plants including marigolds (below).