Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Dyer’s greenweed

Dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria) is a small shrub, usually not growing more than 60cm high, found rough grassy areas throughout England, Wales and southern Scotland.   As both its English and scientific names suggest it was formerly valued as a dye-plant, and according to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica, 1996: 229: [it] ‘was widely grown as a dye-plant, and naturalised relics of cultivation have probably extended its distribution.’

STNEC 027W.A. Leighton in his Flora of Shropshire, 1841: 349 states that ‘the whole plant yields a good yellow dye.’

Anne Pratt in her Wild Flowers, 1857, 2: 179 writes:

‘The author of  Journal of a Naturalist* says “Our poorer people a few years ago, used to collect it by cart-loads about the month of July, and the season of woad-waxen was a little harvest for them, but it interfered greatly with our hay-making.  Women could gain about two shillings a day clear of expenses by gathering it.”  The collecting of Dyers-weed is a very laborious employment, as the roots extend a good way into the soil.  The writer referred to adds that the trade is not so common now, and is discouraged by the farmers.’

While according to Cornelius Nicholson, in his Annals of Kendal, ed. 2, 1861: 238:

‘A plant which is known to have abounded in the neighbourhood of Kendal [Cumbria] many years ago, though it be now nearly uprooted, called by Linnaeus Genista tinctoria, and commonly “Dyer’s Broom”, was brought in large quantities to Kendal, from the neighbouring commons and marshes, and sold to the dyers.  The plant, after being dried, was boiled for the colouring matter it contained, which was a beautiful yellow.  The cloth was first boiled in alum water, for a mordant, and then immersed in the yellow dye.  It was then dried and submerged in a blue liquor extracted from woad [Isatis tinctoria to produce the famous Kendal green].’

*  John Leonard Knapp (1767-1845), Journal of a Naturalist, ed.2, 1829: 76.  Knapp lived in a village ‘upon a very ancient road connecting the city of Bristol with that of Gloucester’ and appears to be referring to that area.

Images:  main, Stonegate, East Sussex, July 2015; inset, Hartland Quay, north Devon, June 2016.