What’s the Madder?

Last month I went outside to do half an hour’s gardening, and somehow that turned into several hours. Mainly because I decided it was time to dig up the madder.

Having heard that madder could get invasive, I grew it in a cut-down old oil barrel. I’d harvested and dried most of the roots a year and a half ago, but since those roots hadn’t been particularly thick I left a couple in the barrel to see if the plants would come back and grow thicker roots.

Initially I thought they hadn’t. The roots were few and not much bigger than the previous harvest’s. But then I continued emptying the barrel and discovered a whole other layer of roots at the bottom half of the barrel. They were chunkier and more numerous, and I was pleased with that because they’d yield more dye.

Then I reached a layer of polystyrene I’d forgotten I’d lined the bottom with as a barrier to discourage roots to escape out of the holes.

Except it turned out the madder really liked those conditions. The roots had grown really fat, making their way through the polystyrene.

Under this were more big roots. Then I tipped over the empty barrel and wasn’t so pleased any more. The ground beneath was riddled with madder root.

Fortunately, the ground there is chunky gravel on top of a thin layer of clay on top of shale, so it wasn’t too hard to dig it all out. It could have been much worse, especially as the roots have a habit of thinning out to a thread, then after an inch or so thickening up and continuing on. So I’d pull at one and it’d get thinner then break, and look like I’d got the whole root.

Having twigged to this growth habit, I knew that I needed to keep digging to check whether I had truly found the end. Eventually I was done, and to my surprise had a bigger harvest than the first one. I chopped it all up into tiny pieces and spread it on a screen to dry.

One of these days I’m going to get around to dyeing something with the old batch, and maybe this new one as well. But I don’t think I’ll be growing madder again. Or, if I do, I’ll use a pot with holes in the side rather than the bottom so I can see if it’s trying to escape. But I’ll also line it with polystyrene, since the roots growing in and around it were the fattest of all!