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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


Transfer and spread

A map of the origination, transfer and spread of dyes and pigments

Indigo was recognised as a valuable blue dye by most early explorers of the Indian region. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo described in detail the Indian indigo industry and by the eleventh century, Arab traders had introduced indigo to the Mediterranean region, where it became more popular than the local blue dye (woad). Indigo was brought to Britain in Elizabethan times (1500-1600), but its use was banned there and in other European countries due to protests from woad growers, whose business was being undercut. Today, indigo is still used to dye jeans –the irregular attachment of the dye causes the bleaching and mottling effect. Indigo has become naturalized in the southern United States.

Woad is a native plant from the Mediterranean basin to central Asia and was probably taken into cultivation in a wide variety of areas. Its use in ancient times was widespread, from Egypt to Britain. Cultivation of woad was continuous in France from the 1400s to 1700s. The early centre of woad cultivation in Britain was the county of Somerset, where the stench of its production (involving fermentation) was such that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) forbade its production within 7 km (5 miles) of any her palaces.

Henna grows naturally from the Mediterranean to central Asia and is widely cultivated throughout the region. It was taken to the West Indies by European settlers, where it has become firmly established and naturalized.

Use of madder for red dye spread from India to the Middle East and thence to Europe by the Middle Ages. By medieval times, madder cultivation was important in France and Germany, but by the sixteenth century the Dutch maintained a monopoly on cultivation and production. The production of Turkey red was a closely guarded secret in France until the mid-eighteenth century, when industrial spies obtained the secret recipes and modified them for use in Holland and England. By 1784 a cleaned-up method of producing Turkey red was being employed in the textile mills of Manchester. Both cultivation and use of madder declined precipitously after the invention of synthetic dyes in 1826. Munjeet, Rubia cordifolia, has become widely cultivated throughout tropical Asia, but has not been taken further afield.

Weld is now known in Europe, and grows as far north as Scotland; dyer's rocket has been extensively naturalized around the world in temperate areas. Grown easily from seed, it has been taken by European settlers all over the world.

The black walnut was taken from North America to Europe in the sixteenth or seventeenth century as a timber tree; the wood is prized for cabinet making.