Rubia tinctoria

Herbs gallery - Madder

Common names

  • Common Madder
  • Dyer's Madder
  • Madder
  • Madder Root

Madder is a perennially growing plant having a long life span and belongs to the family Rubiaceae, which also includes coffee. Plants belonging to this species sprout early in April and grow up to a height of anything between 60 cm and 100 cm. Madder plants bear leaves that are prickly. These leaves may often lead to a skin rash.

Often, the common madder plant may be found growing up to a height of 1.5 meters. The leaves of this plant are evergreen and grow up to a length of anything between 5 cm and 10 cm and may be anything between 2 cm and 3 cm in width. About four to seven leaves emerge in whorls on the main or central stem and each of them have a shape akin to the stars. The leaves and stems have tiny hooks with the help of which the plant clings to erect structures and climbs upwards.

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The flowers of madder are very small and measure about 3 mm to 5 mm in diameter. Each flower has five yellow hued petals and they bloom between June and August. The flowers give rise to small berries whose color varies between red and black. Each berry is about 4 mm to 6 mm in diameter. The roots of this plant are quite elongated and may measure up to more than a meter in length and be about 12 mm thick. The madder root yields a red dye called the rose madder. The herb has a preference for loamy soils having a steady moisture level. This plant is often used in the form of a food for larvae belonging to a number of Lepidoptera species, counting the Hummingbird hawk moth.

Sprouting in early April, madder plants begin to die down during the later part of autumn. The berries start drying during this time and the seeds of the plant appear somewhat like black peppercorns. The madder bed appears to be dead all through the winter months, resembling a ground covered with hay.

That the madder plant has been used for dyeing since ancient times is evident from findings in India, where archeologists have discovered a cotton cloth that had been dyed using madder from the ancient Indus Valley civilization site at Mohenjo-daro dating back to the 3rd century BCE. The madder plant is known as Manjishtha in Sanskrit. In fact, in the olden days, hermits used the dye of this plant to color their clothes saffron.

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Archeologists have also excavated remains of woad as well as madder dating to the Viking age. In fact, it has been found that some of the most ancient textiles in Europe were colored using madder and they had been excavated from the Merovingian queen Amegundis' grave from Saint-Denis close to Paris. These textiles are said to belong to the period during 565 AD - 570 AD. In Charlemagne's "Capitulare de villis', the writer uses the term 'warentiam' to refer to madder. In addition, this plant is also mentioned in the herbal of Bingen's Hildegard. It is interesting to note that madder was also used to dye the British Redcoats' red coats. Prior to using madder, the red coats were colored using cochineal.

Earlier, a very complicated and multiple step process was used to process the root of madder using 'oak galls and sumac, sheep's dung, calf's blood, alum, soda and a tin solution' to obtain a very potent and fast red known as Turkey red. This color - Turkey red - was initially developed in India and in due course of time spread to Turkey where it got its name. Later, Greek labourers who were acquainted with the processing of madder root to obtain Turkey red carried the technique to France, while spies from England and Holland discovered the secret method soon and the dye was prepared in their countries too. By 1784, people in Manchester had started producing a more refined version of Turkey red.

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Culpeper's writings on herbal say that the madder plant was governed by Mars and possessed opening characteristic. It further mentions that the herb has the ability to bind as well as reinforce later on. In those days, this plant was used for treating health conditions like jaundice, spleen blockage, palsy, sciatica, melancholy, bruises and even hemorrhoids. Herbalists boiled the root in wine and added sugar or honey for taste and gave it to the patient. To treat spleen swelling, the madder seed is drunk along with honey and vinegar. The leaves as well as the stem of madder are useful in treating delayed menstruation. Similarly, the leaves and roots of the plant are crushed and applied to freckles as well as skin blemishes to cure these conditions.

The roots of madder plant yield various type of red dyes, counting blood red, brick red, orange red as well as fiery reds. The color of dye produced by the roots is subject to the soil where the plant is grown, the age of the plants, the heat of the dyeing container, the minerals present in the water that was used for dyeing as well as the quantity of madder used for dyeing a cloth. Interestingly, clothes can be dyed with madder in cold as well as hot water. If you wish to get better reds for your clothes, you need to add chalk, but keep away from elevated temperatures. In fact, many dyers suggest that you mordant the wool or woollen clothes using alum and avoid using cream of tartar.

Parts used



The root of madder plant has multiple uses, including therapeutic. The root is known to be astringent (pungent), aperient (mildly laxative), diuretic, cholagogue (a medication that promotes bile flow) and emmenagogue (a medicine that promotes menstrual discharge). While this plant is generally not used therapeutically, the roots have a reputation of being effective in treating jaundice, dropsy and amenorrhea (absence of menstruation).

Rubia tinctoria or madder is particularly an excellent resource of anthraquinones that have the ability to bind calcium safely in our urinary tract and also considerably lessen the growth of calcium crystals in the urinary tract. This attribute of madder is very useful in preventing the formation of kidney stones. In addition, it has been proven that madder is effective in treating severe attacks of kidney stones, as it helps to diminish the size of kidney stones that have formed from before.

Since the ancient times, the root of madder has been employed in the form of a vegetable dye to color cotton, wool, and silk as well as tan leather. The roots of the plant are harvested in the very first year of its existence to obtain the dye yielded by its root. The external brown layer of the plant yields an ordinary type of this dye, while the lower layer, which is yellow in color, yields a much refined dye. A mordant, usually alum, is used to fix the dye obtained from the madder root to the cloth. In addition, the fermented madder plant can also be used to dye clothes and leather, a process known as Fleurs de garance. People in France, also used the residue of the plant to make a spirit.

The madder plant root encloses an acid known as ruberthyrin. The root is dried out, treated with acids or fermented to change ruberthyrin into different substances like alizarin, sugar and purpurin. These substances were isolated for the first time in 1826 by a French chemist named Pierre Jean Robiquet. Usually, purpurin does not have any color, but it turns red when liquefied in alkaline solutions. When it is combined with clay and thereafter treated using ammonia and alum, purpurin produces a vivid red color.

You may dissolve the pounded madder roots in sulfuric acid to produce a dye after the solution is dried. This dye has been named after the French name for the madder plant - a garance. The yield of alizarin can also be increased employing another method - dissolve the roots of the plant in sulfuric acid once they have already been exploited to make dye. Through this process you can prepare a dye known as garanceux. A coloring can also be produced by treating the pounded roots of madder with alcohol. This dye contains about 40 to 50 times more alizarin found in madder roots.

The pigment obtained from madder root is chemically known as alizarin and it belongs to the anthraquinone group. Way back in 1855, Professor Leonhardi of Dresden in Germany used this chemical to produce an ink called the alizarine. Some years later, in 1869, two German chemists Liebermann and Graebe produced artificial alizarin by synthesizing other chemicals and since 1871 this synthetic alizarin was produced industrially. In fact, this stopped madder cultivation. By the 20th century, this plant was cultivated just in few selected regions of France.

Habitat and cultivation

Madder plant (botanical name Rubia tinctoria) is indigenous to Europe.

This herb is propagated by its seeds, ideally each seed sown in an individual small container packed with compost. The fresh seeds germinate more easily, but it is essential to protect the young plants from invasion of slugs, which are fond of consuming the madder seedlings. In addition, madder plants can also be propagated from cuttings.

When the roots have established themselves, the plant creeps and spreads, clutching any nearby erect structure and may soon turn out to be invasive. You can obtain better reds from the madder plants provided you add lime to the soil they are growing in during the winter.


Several scientific studies have been undertaken to ascertain the health benefits of the madder root. According to the findings of one such research conducted in vitro, it was found that the madder root possesses anti-microbial properties. In another study, conducted on animals, it was found that the madder root has an anti-diarrheal effect in rodents.


Chemical analysis of the madder root has revealed that it encloses a number of chemicals, including purpurin, rubian, ruberythric acid, rubiadin, tannin, sugar and particularly alizarin. Pseudopurpurin contained by madder roots yields an orange hued dye, while xanthopurpurins yield a yellow dye. When added to water or alcohol, the roots impart a red color, slight scent and an astringent taste.

Alizarin contained by madder root is considered to be the most fascinating coloring substance present in the plant. This chemical has now been named dihydroscyanthraquinone. This is present in the form of orange-red colored crystals and is quite not dissolved in water. However, it dissolves in alcohol, alkaline solutions, fixed oils and ether almost readily. The aqueous as well as alcoholic solutions of dihydroscyanthraquinone or alizarin have a rosy red hue, while the ethereal solution is golden-yellow. When dissolved in alkaline, it imparts blue color and when the solution is concentrated it has a violet hue. However, when the alkaline solution is greatly diluted, it becomes violet red. In fact, it is possible to produce a stunning rose-hued lake by dropping a mixture of alum and alizarin in the lake water.

Side effects and cautions

Studies conducted on animals have revealed that madder plant may probably cause cancer in rats. If women take the roots of madder internally during pregnancy, they may also result in forced abortions (miscarriages) and also cause birth defects.

Collection and harvesting

Although the madder plants are ready for harvesting when they are three years old, the ideal age of the plants for harvesting is five years, as by this time, the roots have grown to be as thick as pencils. Roots of madder plants that have been in existence for about 15 years are often as thick as one inch across. Hence, it is advisable that you prepare at least three or even more beds for growing madder plants and plow them in alternation.

According to a number of people, winter is the ideal time for digging out the madder roots, as the prickly foliage of the plant is dry during this time. Moreover, the roots contain maximum nutrients during winter. However, there are other people who say that it is best to dig the plants in August, as cleaning the roots is easier when they are kept in the open in the weather, which is good for a couple of weeks.


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