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Seeds of Trade


Region: South Asia

Other regions: 

Product: Dyes and pigments

Other products from this region: 
   Dyes and pigments belong to the category Miscellaneous inedible


Origins of cultivation

Indigofera tinctoria was originally domesticated in India, where it is mentioned in manuscripts dating from the fourth century BC. It was wrongly believed to be a mineral pigment by Dioscorides (c. 40-90 AD) or Pliny (23-79 AD), neither of whom appreciated the extensive cultivation in the Levant and Egypt.

A blue dye, probably from woad as indigo was not yet recorded as being used, was found in Egyptian cloth dated from the 2000 BC and hieroglyphics dating from 1500 BC refer to the sue of blue dyes. There is some disagreement as to whether this blue dye in early Egypt was woad or indigo, but woad has also been found in early Neolithic sites in France. Woad was extensively used in Eurasia and the Mediterranean basin by 1000 BC. It was cultivated in Asia and elsewhere before the introduction of indigo from India. The Celtic tribes of the British Isles painted their bodies with woad, giving rise to the name Britain – from brith, the Celtic word for paint (Julius Caesar in 52 BC referred to them as the Pictae in Latin). The blue colouring extracted from woad is chemically similar to that found in indigo and is treated in the same way.

Henna is one of the oldest plants used for cosmetic purposes, but whether it was cultivated or collected from the wild is unclear. The earliest written evidence of its use is in 1000 BC; it was clearly used before this time as it has been found as a colorant of the fingernails, finger tips, palms and soles of the feet of Egyptian mummies. There is some evidence that as early as 3200 BC, indigo and henna were being used together to dye hair black. By the time the Jewish people were captives in Egypt in about 1200 BC the custom of dying hair and skin with henna was becoming popular among them as well as among the locals, but the practice was frowned upon by the Orthodox.

Madder was cultivated extensively cultivated all over southwest Asia and Europe until the nineteenth century. It was largely propagated vegetatively from rhizomes, but the exact date of its original cultivation is impossible to determine. Chemicals identifiable as coming from madder have been extracted from red-dyed flax textiles from the Egyptian 18th Dynasty (1370 BC), and various Greek, Roman and Hebrew sources from about 1000 indicate that madder was extensively cultivated from Persia (now Iran) to the Mediterranean basin. Cultivation and domestication must have occurred before then. Munjeet, Rubia cordifolia, has not been cultivated outside its native region, nor has Rubia peregrina. This latter is the species that was used to the dying of Coptic textiles of approximately 500 AD, combined with indigo to produce a brilliant purple.

Dyer's rocket or weld has been cultivated since at least 1000 BC, where evidence of its use has been found in lake sites (Neolithic) in Switzerland. It was the preferred dye for the robes of the Roman vestal virgins, and was clearly cultivated throughout the Roman Empire at the time.

Saffron is unknown outside cultivation, and it probably originated in the Eastern Mediterranean/Near East region, then spread towards Asia. The use of saffron as a dye was mentioned in the Song of Solomon in the Bible and Cleopatra used it as a cosmetic. Saffron plants are featured in Minoan paintings in Crete (before 1000 BC). It was also apparently cultivated in ancient Persia (now Iran), but dates are not known.

Oak galls cannot be 'cultivated'; the gall is an outgrowth of the plant in response to attack by an insect that, unlike mistletoe, another parasite of oak trees, is impossible to encourage.

Walnut leaves and fruits were certainly gathered from the wild rather than being cultivated as were more herbaceous plants such as woad or madder. Their use, to prevent hair turning white, is recorded by the Roman historian and naturalist Pliny in the first century AD.