Madder Roots, Harvest, and Comparisons

For  a number of  years I have been using  madder (Rubia cordifolia) sourced from Maiwa (in Vancouver, BC almost exclusively for my dyeing. I particularly appreciate  the fact that it is finely ground so that I am usually able to just put the dye into the bath along with my textile. If dyeing yarn, however, I typically will  place the ground dye into a net bag  to keep small particles of madder from physically attaching to  the fibers.  

I once heard Michel Garcia speak about the fact that you can nearly double the yield from madder root if it is finely ground. It makes sense. More surface area means that it’s easier to extract the dye. 

Early last year I harvested about 5 pounds of madder roots (Rubia tinctorium) from my garden. The plants were started  from seed and they had been in the ground for about 5 years. I dug up the entire bed (about 4’ x 8’), pulled up the largest of the roots, leaving the smaller roots in place. I amended the soil, added some chalk, and the plants have continued to grow in the same location. My theory is that I can continue to harvest every few years by  leaving the roots in the same place and repeating the amendment process  We’ll see…

I cleaned and dried the roots. Some of the dyes are developed by in the drying process so that is important.  A few weeks later, I dug up another small patch.  With this second batch, it occurred to me that maybe I could grind up the roots before drying them. It was easy to chop up the fresh roots into small pieces with an old food processor that I have designated for studio use. Once chopped, the roots dried very easily on horizontal screens.

Last month, I was preparing a major piece for an exhibition and I wanted to use my own madder. The large, dried roots proved to be problematic. I wanted to grind them as fine as possible but was not sure how to proceed. 

I tried a mechanical corn grinder. It was a terrible experience! The grind was very coarse, the roots jammed in the grinder, and it was not at all successful. I tried the old food processor – not powerful enough to be effective.  I even tried grinding small amounts in a dye-designated coffee/spice grinder. It was better, but still not very good and it would have taken far too long since the capacity of the grinder was very small. 

I did some research, and finally decided to purchase  a powerful electric grinder that is recommended for medicinal herbs (roots) etc. It was amazing! First, I quickly broke the roots into smaller pieces by hand, which allowed me to pull out the “chaff” (the stem pieces with no dye). I put the smaller root pieces into the grinder and I had finely ground madder root in just two minutes!

I’ve learned a lot (of course). Madder root, even when dried completely, still has elements (sugars maybe?) that coated the bowl of the grinder with a layer of sticky madder. The bowl of the new grinder cannot be immersed in water so I had to work hard to clean it out. But the madder is all ground and the grinder is  now ready to grind my dried sumac leaves and some other tannins. 

In our book,  The Art and Science of Natural Dyes, Joy and I discuss and show examples of how a dyer sometimes has more control over the color when using madder roots rather than extracts.  The source (and type) of the roots is also a factor.  Madder contains many different dyes and the two different species contain different combinations. 

As  I began my tests for the exhibition piece, I did many samples and used madder roots from a variety of sources.  The woven shibori project utilized mordant printing with different strengths of aluminum acetate, ferrous acetate, and combinations of the two mordants. When Rubia tinctorium is used with iron mordants, it is possible to achieve distinct purple colors. The purples are not possible with Rubia cordifolia, as the dyes within the roots are different. I was very happy to observe that my own madder was the very best of all!

madder comparison cotton
Ground madder root @ 50% w.o.f. on cotton with mordant printing. Left to right: Rubia tinctorium from my garden, Rubia tinctorium from France, Rubia cordifolia from India (Maiwa). Note the purples achieved from the Rubia tinctorium with an iron mordant.



Garden Series: Madder, detail of finished piece
Garden Series: Madder, detail of finished piece

I am very encouraged to keep growing…and dyeing….

I have begun using my own copy of The Art and Science of Natural Dyes in the studio and in my teaching. No, I do not have all of those recipes committed to memory! I have found it very useful to add tabs to the book, making it easy to navigate and find exactly what I’m looking for.


Note: Maiwa now carries very finely ground Rubia tinctorium roots.



37 thoughts on “Madder Roots, Harvest, and Comparisons

  1. Thank you so much for sharing all this knowledge and experimentation. Like you I have a bed of madder that is ready to harvest. The lesson I have learned so far is that it would have been better to contain it in a raised bed as the roots have already spread to the lawn! Also, I do not know what type of madder it is so will have to see what colour it produces, and follow your advice on finding a way to grind it! Carolyn

  2. Thanks for this blog post, Catharine. As usual, so informative and interesting! I had particular interest in this one because the problem of “madder dots” on dyed fabrics has occurred more than once for me. Love the finished piece, esp. with the addition of a bit of iron.

  3. Hi Catherine

    That is very interesting, I have a big backyard where I grow a lot of veggies, I think I will try some Madder as well as Indigo Australis this year. Where did you get your plants from?

    I am desperate to get your book, but I have a problem. On it is something like $54 but on where us Aussies are forced to shop for anything that is stocked on both sites it is the equivalent of $85 which is an outrageous price hike by our favourite capitalist. Most other places I have tried like say it is not currently available. Any idea why that is? Out of stock already seems hard to believe.

    By the way, just finished Yoshiko’s study tour of India. Had a great time.

    – Michael

    Sent from my iPad


    1. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the book trade business but I do know that once Schiffer (the publisher) sells a book to Amazon, or anyone else, the pricing is totally out of their control. I do know there are books on a boat headed to Australia, but I think they are all sold to distributors at this time. So maybe more will be available there. I will be in Australia for the next 3 weeks – an exhibition with Kay Faulkner at RAG in Queensland, and I’ll do a couple lectures in Sydney. India with Yoshiko must have been wonderful!

      1. Catharine I do hope this book sells well for you both, as I am in awe of the amount of trialling and research which would have been put in to compile it. Fantastic result! See you in Sydney.

    2. Michael, the different prices reflect the different currencies. $A is only .71 of $US. On US Amazon you pay in $US, on Aus Amazon you pay in $A.

    3. Michael you can order it from Angus and Robertson for $76 on back order (their listed RRP is $120). My pre-publication order arrived yesterday and I am thrilled.

  4. Wonderful post and work! I love your book – thank you so much! I made up some madder in October the day before I broke my foot, so it has been sitting in my dye shed. I’m finally able to use it, so I am anxious to see what happens when I use it after it sits for that long.

  5. Thanks for this! I have a madder bed with 3 plants, on year 3 I began digging up likely 1/3roots so I can dig a bit each year, the plants seem happy and healthy… I have never ground as fine as you did so will have to try that this year to increase my yield. I am ordering your book now Catherine! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  6. Hi Catherine! I’ve just recently moved to Santa Fe, NM. Do you have any suggestions for plants I can forage in this region? Or for classes/resources I can learn from?? Thanks!

    1. I don’t know much about plants in that location. It would be a good idea to track down some natural dyers there or local references. Rabbit brush is a good dye plant and it does grow in the wild but that’s the extent of my knowledge.

    2. Mistletoe. Usnea (old mans beard Lichen), Chamisa and Sage but yellows are light fugitive mostly. Asters with iron. In the fall the roadside type of sunflowers with alkaline rinse. Black or dark hollyhocks are fun but likely not for a tapestry. Some lichens and tree bark fungus. Just have fun!

  7. I don’t know for sure. All roots must be dried, and if kept dried, will have a very long shelf life. I think the amount of dye has more to do with the soil and growing conditions.

  8. Thank you for sharing. Growing your own dye plants is so rewarding and keeps us well connected with nature. I will try growing some Rubia tinctoria from seeds this year hopping they will cope with the Canadian cold winter temperature.

  9. I too have madder that will be ready for harvest this fall and this post was incredibly helpful. I’m also enjoying the book (lots of aha! moments) and am looking forward to being with you and Joy at Penland in June!

  10. I graduated from small coffee grinders found for $3 at local thrift shops to a brand new Cuisinart coffee grinder. The mechanical mill just doesn’t work. I tried it on black walnut. Talk about headache!

    I bought your new book, Catherine, and it’s marvelous! Thank you!

  11. Catherine, The book … Kudos!!! So much clarity, and well organized! Since there is so much information in it, it works! I’m also warmed by the return to use of the actual dyestuffs when possible. So excited to make ‘lakes’ from leftovers and use as pigments, also the printing methods. Will you be in Berkeley for the indigo colloquium?
    How exciting that now you’re also printing on the woven shibori, wow.

    1. Hi Jaya,
      Unfortunately, I can’t come to the indigo even in Berkeley. I had already made other commitments but I will be there in September to teach a series of one-day workshops.

  12. Hi Catherine
    Have you come accross the book “Madder Red” by Robert Chenciner. There is a great deal of information in it about the traditional treatment of madder root after it was dug up to prepare it for use. Some of the processes used look to be very interesting – including steaming the root and then a short fermentation to remove sugars. I have been hoping to do some experiments along these lines but as yet have not had the time but maybe you could use the info. I have sumerised the relavent info in Our Natures Rainbow Blog see here
    I am very envious of your new grinding machine!!
    Got your book on order but still waiting.
    Meanwhile, best wishes to you.
    Regards Ashley

    1. I do have that book and have read it. Much of the processes described are more appropriate for larger industrial applications. My garden is small….But all the information is relevant.

  13. I was so happy to receive my book! But it has immediately come out if the hard cover and pages fell out. Of course the pages are easily put back, but I can’t puit back in the cover. I tightened the non spiral binding but it is disappointing.

      1. Thanks Catherine, I was having a rough day and then that happened. not tragic but sad. I am loving the book, though!

  14. Thank you for this blog! i love madder, have madder in my garden but they are too young to harvest. Your book is sold out (again?)…. so i have to wait for that either.
    But in the meanwhile…we can dye….
    Best wishes, Elly

  15. Cathrine, Wonderful email! Love the power grinder and gardening tips. I have just inherited 150 acres of poor sand eastern North Caroline. Dye plants should work well there with time. I live off grid, so your manual masa mill is my go to for daily coffee and flour. Great unit, but don’t mix with dye. I have ordered your book and will get to the power mill at some point. What is the best source for indigo? I did order from Table Rock in the southwest, but they are out of biz now.

  16. Catherine, thank you for your information. It is very interesting. I think your madder roots are the best as they are from one single group (the normally at sale being are usually a mixture of several crops) and also of mature enough of plants. I am also interested of differences and comparisons of using fresh /dried roots, because I have understood that many of the South Americans crafters use fresh roots for dyeing. And on other thing more – the extracting of madder with different solutions e.g. alcohol/water for example. Have you made any experiments in those areas?

    1. You make a good point about using roots from one, single mature crop. It is my understanding that some of the dye only becomes available after the roots are dried. Because of that, I have not compared fresh vs. dried roots but the next time I harvest roots I may do that – just to see for myself. Regarding alcohol extraction: Michel Garcia recently mentioned that alcohol extraction (as used with alkanet, etc) damages the dye. I have only used water.

  17. Thanks so much for sharing all that you do with us. Where would I find some madder root plant starts to try to grow my own? Thanks.

    1. If you have a dyer in your area who grows madder, they might be willing to share some roots. Otherwise, you can grow madder from seeds. I started my beds from seed planted directly in the ground.

  18. I have found that soaking the dried roots for a couple of days and then putting them into the food processor does a decent job.

  19. One think I was thinking when wondering if I should grind my own madder or buy the powder: Do you think that when you grind your own you have a more “fresher” powder and due to that you can extract more from it? Thanks for the article and your findings 🙂

    1. Madder root must be dried before it is used for dyeing. Once dried, the “freshness” in not an important issue. But madder grown in different environments can vary. Madder takes at least 3 years to grow so I would not hesitate to purchase ground madder root. It would be interesting to compare it to madder that you grow yourself.

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