Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, a few weeks ago I discovered this plant growing on the edge of the playing fields next to Coldfall Wood, and I was so intrigued that I thought it deserved a Wednesday Weed all to itself. When I saw it for the first time, it reminded me of of the tip-tilted tail of a curious cat, albeit a yellow one, so how could I resist? Plus, it is the first member of the mignonette family to grace the blog. The plant often grows in places where the soil has been disturbed, as here – the ground was turned over when some additional drainage measures were implemented last year. Who knows how long these seeds have been waiting for the correct conditions for germination?
Weld is an ancient introduction to the UK from Eurasia, and was probably planted because it produces a bright yellow dye (its other common names include Dyer’s Weld and and Dyer’s Rocket). In its native Iran, it is the commonest plant dye for use in carpets. It is one of our earliest dye plants, in use from the first millenium BC. Mixed with the blue dye from woad (Isatis tinctoria) it made Lincoln Green, much beloved by Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
The whole plant was used, and the yellower the flowers, and the thinner the stems, the better the dye. I can’t help thinking that the little crop that I saw would have been perfect, although plants that grow on sandy soils are preferred to those that grow on moist clay soils, such as here in London.
The plant was the dye of choice for the clothes of ordinary people, but could also be used to dye silk (this is how it was used by the Vikings). To produce sufficient quantities, it was grown commercially in the south-east and in Yorkshire, and was sometimes planted alongside corn and barley. Such was the demand for weld that the plant had to be imported from France during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
In the UK, the use of weld as a dye came to an end at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when artificial means of colouration were created. However, in Egypt the plant, known as Reseda, is still harvested in large quantities as a dye for tapestries.
The dye from weld was also used as an ink, and as a paint – to make it permanent, it was precipitated with chalk. Many medieval manuscript artists used it as a substitute for gold when they were illuminating their texts. It was also used to provide the yellow colour in tapestries and carpets, much as it is today.
Medicinally, it is said to have been a ‘last-resort’ for the plague, and was also used as a poultice for snake bite and insect stings, although it is apparently a ‘hot’ herb, like radish and horseradish, though it is unrelated to either. It appears to largely go uneaten, or at least I can’t find any recipes. It seems to be one of those plants that has one main human use, and that is to dye things.
I am intrigued by how many craftspeople are using wild plant dyes in their work these days. In her wonderful blog Wool – Tribulations of Hand Spinning and Herbal Dyeing, Fran Rushworth experiments with weld, and finds that it produces a remarkably strong and attractive yellow dye. We are rediscovering so many fascinating things about our local plants – it’s as if we are meeting up with old friends. For so much of our history we have been in direct relationship with the environment, and now so many of us are lost, wandering in a world we don’t understand. Foraging for food or for other purposes often means that we not only get a greater knowledge of what’s going on around us, but also that we have a vested interest in preserving it.
Photo One – By Glennweiss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47596752
Photo Two is in the public domain – the tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute, and link back to the blog, thank you!