Isatis tinctoria

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Woad)
Jump to: navigation, search
"Woad" redirects here. For the American radio station, see WOAD (AM). For 'Woads' as a fictional name for a tribe[1], see Picts.
Isatis tinctoria
Isatis tinctoria02.JPG
Woad flowers
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Brassicales
Family: Brassicaceae
Genus: Isatis
Species: I. tinctoria
Binomial name
Isatis tinctoria

Isatis indigotica Fortune

Isatis tinctoria - MHNT

Isatis tinctoria, with woad (/ˈwd/) or glastum as the common name, is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae. It is commonly called dyer's woad. It is occasionally known as Asp of Jerusalem. Woad is also the name of a blue dye produced from the leaves[2] of the plant.

Woad is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia to eastern Siberia and Western Asia (per Hegi[3]) but is now found in southeastern and Central Europe as well. Long important as a source of blue dye, it has been cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and southern Europe, since ancient times. In medieval times there were important woad-growing regions in England, Germany and France. Towns such as Toulouse became prosperous from the woad trade. Woad was eventually replaced by the stronger indigo and, in the early 20th century, both woad and indigo were replaced by synthetic indigos.

Used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, woad is now being studied for use in the treatment of cancer. There has also been some revival of the use of woad for craft purposes.

History of woad cultivation[edit]

Ancient use[edit]

The first archaeological finds of woad seeds date to the Neolithic. The seeds have been found in the French cave of l'Audoste, Bouches-du-Rhône (France). Impressions of the seeds of Färberwaid (Isatis tinctoria L.) or German indigo, of the plant family (Brassicaceae), have been found on pottery in the Iron Age settlement of the Heuneburg, Germany. The Hallstatt burials (Hochdorf Chieftain's Grave) of Hochdorf an der Enz and Hohmichele contained textiles dyed with Färberwaid (woad dye).

The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, dyed with weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue).
Woad merchant Jean de Bernuy's 16th-century mansion in Toulouse

Melo and Rondão write that woad was known "as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, who used it to dye the cloth wrappings applied for the mummies."[4] Skelton informs us that one of the early dyes discovered by the ancient Egyptians was "blue woad (Isatis tinctoria)."[5] Lucas writes, "What has been assumed to have been Indian Indigo on ancient Egyptian fabrics may have been woad."[6] Hall states that the ancient Egyptians created their blue dye "by using indigotin, otherwise known as woad."[7]

Julius Caesar reported (in De Bello Gallico) that the Britanni used to colour their bodies blue with vitrum, a word that roughly translates to "glass". Many have assumed that vitrum refers to woad, but other modern authors regard this as a misconception, possibly repeated for political reasons; Caesar may have been describing some form of copper- or iron-based pigment.[8][9][unreliable source?] The northern inhabitants of Britain came to be known as Picts (Picti), meaning "painted ones" in Latin, which was due to accounts of them painting or tattooing their bodies. However, modern experiments with woad show it does not work as a tattoo pigment, is caustic and causes scarring when put into the skin.[8][9]

The medieval period onwards[edit]

Illustration of German woad mill in Thuringia, 1752

Woad was one of the three staples of the European dyeing industry, along with weld (yellow) and madder (red).[10] Chaucer mentions their use by the dyer ("litestere") in his poem The Former Age:[11]

No mader, welde, or wood no litestere.
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe

The three colors can be seen together in tapestries such as The Hunt of the Unicorn (1495–1505), though typically it is the dark blue of the woad that has lasted best.

In Viking age levels at archaeological digs at York, a dye shop with remains of both woad and madder has been excavated and dated to the 10th century. In medieval times, centres of woad cultivation lay in Lincolnshire and Somerset in England, Jülich and the Erfurt area in Thuringia in Germany, Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy, and Gascogne, Normandy, the Somme Basin (from Amiens to Saint-Quentin), Brittany and, above all, Languedoc in France. This last region, in the triangle created by Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, was for a long time the most productive of woad, or "pastel" as it was known there, one writer commenting that "woad... hath made that country the happiest and richest in Europe."[10] The prosperous woad merchants of Toulouse displayed their affluence in splendid mansions, many of which are still standing. One merchant, Jean de Bernuy, a Spanish Jew who had fled the inquisition, was credit-worthy enough to be the main guarantor of the ransomed King Francis I after his capture at the Battle of Pavia by Charles V of Spain.[10] Much of the woad produced here was used for the cloth industry in southern France,[12] but it was also exported via Bayonne, Narbonne and Bordeaux to Flanders, the Low Countries, Italy, and above all Britain and Spain.

A major market for woad was at Görlitz in Silesia.[13] The citizens of the five Thuringian Färberwaid (dye woad) towns of Erfurt, Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstadt and Langensalza had their own charters. In Erfurt, the woad-traders gave the funds to found the University of Erfurt. Traditional fabric is still printed with woad in Thuringia, Saxony and Lusatia today: it is known as Blaudruck (literally, "blue print(ing)").

Medieval uses of the dye were not limited to textiles. For example, the illustrator of the Lindisfarne Gospels used a woad-based pigment for blue paint.

Woad and indigo[edit]

Woad plants in their first year

The dye chemical extracted from woad is indigo, the same dye extracted from "true indigo", Indigofera tinctoria, but in a lower concentration. Following the European discovery of the seaway to India, great amounts of indigo were imported from Asia. Laws were passed in some parts of Europe to protect the woad industry from the competition of the indigo trade. It was proclaimed that indigo caused yarns to rot: "In 1577 the German government officially prohibited the use of indigo, denouncing it as that pernicious, deceitful and corrosive substance, the Devil's dye."[14] "... a recess of the Diet held in 1577 prohibited the use of 'the newly-invented, deceitful, eating and corrosive dye called the devil's dye.'" This prohibition was repeated in 1594 and again in 1603.[15] In France, Henry IV, in an edict of 1609, forbade under pain of death the use of "the false and pernicious Indian drug".[16]

With the development of a chemical process to synthesize the pigment, both the woad and natural indigo industries collapsed in the first years of the 20th century. The last commercial harvest of woad until recent times occurred in 1932, in Lincolnshire, Britain. Small amounts of woad are now grown in the UK and France to supply craft dyers.[17] The classic book about woad is The Woad Plant and its Dye by J. B. Hurry, Oxford University Press of 1930, which contains an extensive bibliography.[18]

A method for producing indigo dye from woad is described in The History of Woad and the Medieval Woad Vat (1998) ISBN 0-9534133-0-6.[19]

Woad is biodegradable and safe in the environment. In Germany, there have been attempts to use it to protect wood against decay without applying dangerous chemicals. Production of woad is increasing in the UK for use in inks, particularly for inkjet printers, and dyes. The plant can cause problems, however: Isatis tinctoria is classified as an invasive species in parts of the United States.

Woad and health[edit]

Chemicals from woad might be used to prevent cancer, as it can produce high levels of glucobrassicin.[20][21] Young leaves when damaged can produce more glucobrassicin, up to 65 times as much.[22]

Indigowoad root (Chinese: ; pinyin: bǎn lán gēn) is a traditional Chinese medicine herb that comes from the roots of woad. Literature on traditional Chinese medicine uses the scientific name Isatis indigotica, although this name is usually considered synonymous with Isatis tinctoria by botanists. It is also known as Radix isatidis. The herb is cultivated in various regions of northern China, namely Hebei, Beijing, Heilongjiang, Henan, Jiangsu, and Gansu. The roots are harvested during the autumn and dried. The dried root is processed into granules, which are most commonly consumed dissolved in hot water or tea. The product is very popular throughout China. Possible minor side effects include allergic reactions and dizziness; only large dosages or long term usage can be toxic to the kidneys. Treatments have not generally been evaluated clinically.[citation needed]

Invasive and noxious weed[edit]

In certain locations, the plant is classified as a non-native and invasive weed. It is listed as a noxious weed by the agriculture departments of several states in the western United States, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.[23][24] In Montana, it has been the target of an extensive, and largely successful, eradication attempt.[25]


  1. ^ "King Arthur - Key historical facts". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  2. ^ "Woad – Definition and More". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 3 February 2011. 
  3. ^ Hegi,G. Illustrierte Flora von Mitteleuropa. Spermatophyta, Band IV Teil 1. Angiospermae, Dicotyledones 2, pp. 126–131 (1986).
  4. ^ J. Sérgio Seixas de Melo Dr., Raquel Rondão, Hugh D. Burrows Prof. Dr., Maria J. Melo Dr., Suppiah Navaratnam Dr., Ruth Edge Dr., Gundula Voss Dr., "Spectral and Photophysical Studies of Substituted Indigo Derivatives in Their Keto Forms," ChemPhysChem, Volume 7, Issue 11, pages 2303–2311, November 13, 2006
  5. ^ Skelton, H., A Colour Chemist’s History of Western Art, – Review of Progress in Coloration and Related, 1999
  6. ^ A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries
  7. ^ Hall, Rosalind, Egyptian Textiles,(Shire Egyptology, pg. 10
  8. ^ a b Fish, Pat, quoted in: Woad and its mis-association with Pictish BodyArt: "...(woad) is also an amazing astringent. The tattoo I did with it literally burned itself to the surface, causing me to drag the poor experimented-upon fellow to my doctor who gave me a stern chastizing for using innappropriate [sic] ink. It produced quite a bit of scar tissue, but healed very quickly, and no blue was left behind. This leads me to think it may have been used for closing battle wounds. I believe the Celts used copper for blue tattoos, they had plenty of it, and soot ash cardon for black. Unfortunately we need more bog bodies to prove this point!"
  9. ^ a b "The Problem of the Woad". Retrieved 2012-10-09.  However, archaeological finds have confirmed the existence and use of woad in iron-age Britain: M. Van der Veen/A.R. Hall/J. May, "Woad and the Britons Painted Blue," Oxford Journal of Archaeology 12.3 (1993) 367—371
  10. ^ a b c Balfour-Paul, Jenny (2006). Indigo. London: Archetype Publications. ISBN 978-1-904982-15-9.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "indigo" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "indigo" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  11. ^ The Former Age at
  12. ^ Pauls, Michael; Dana Facaros (2007). Gascony & the pyrenees (5th ed.). London: Cadogan Guides. p. 314. ISBN 978-1-86011-360-4. 
  13. ^ Werner Sombart, Der Moderne Kapitalismus (15ty ed.) 1928, vol I, p. 231.
  14. ^ Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Volume 17, No. 100, April, 1876.
  15. ^ D G Schreber, Historische, physische und economische Beschreibung des Waidtes, 1752, the appendix; Thorpe JF and Ingold CK, 1923, Synthetic colouring matters - vat colours (London: Longmans, Green), p. 23
  16. ^ Frost, John; translated from the French of Édouard Foucaud (1846). The book of illustrious mechanics of Europe and America. p. 236. Retrieved 7 May 2011.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  17. ^ Chris Cooksey. "Indigo - woad". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  18. ^ "J B Hurry's woad bibliography". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  19. ^ "Historic Dyes Series No. 1 - The History of Woad and the Medieval Woad Vat by John Edmonds". unknown. Retrieved 28 January 2011. 
  20. ^ Galletti, Stefania; Barillari, Jessica; Iori, Renato; Venturi, Gianpietro (14 August 2006). "Glucobrassicin enhancement in woad (Isatis tinctoria) leaves by chemical and physical treatments". Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture (Wiley) 86 (12): 1833–1836. doi:10.1002/jsfa.2571. 
  21. ^ "War paint plant 'tackles cancer'". BBC online, 13 August 2006. Accessed 2007-06-02
  22. ^ "Celts' warpaint may be weapon to beat cancer". The Telegraph, 14 August 2006. Accessed 2007-06-02
  23. ^ "PLANTS Profile for Isatis tinctoria (Dyer's woad)". Retrieved November 11, 2014. 
  24. ^ "Prohibited, Regulated and Restricted Noxious Weeds". Archived from the original on November 23, 2009. Retrieved November 24, 2009. 
  25. ^ Monica L. Pokorny and Jane M. Krueger-Mangold. "Evaluating Montana’s Dyer’s Woad (Isatis tinctoria) Cooperative Eradication Project" (PDF). Weed Technology 2007 21:262–269. 

24. Renate Kaiser-Alexnat: Wonder Woad. Experiences involving human and plant – especially woad – reported in pictures and stories“. epubli GmbH, Berlin, 2013. ISBN 978-3-8442-5590-4

External links[edit]