Friday, February 24, 2023

Indigo: A Plant, A Hue, A Phenomenon

Different blue hues of indigo yarn with green indigo plant leaves on top of them.
We’ve all heard of indigo; some of us think of it as a color and some of us even know that it’s a plant that makes blue dye. But fewer of us know the length and breadth of the story of indigo. And no one knows the whole story. 

A scrap of blue & white woven fabric - the oldest indigo cloth ever found.
Oldest Indigo Cloth
The use of indigo dye is an ancient practice that quite literally goes back as far as recorded history. For decades, scientists believed they had the oldest piece of indigo cloth. It was from the 5th Dynasty (~2465-2323 BCE) in ancient Egypt. That changed when archaeologists discovered a fabric remnant in an excavation in Peru. That well-preserved piece, cotton dyed with indigo, was made more than 6,100 years ago. This meant it was roughly 1,500 years older than the Egyptian piece (here’s video on the find). Not only did this expand the indigo timeline, but it also stunned the scientific world. The indigo plant grows easily and well in many parts of the world, and there are many native species, but getting that brilliant blue dye is a complex process. Had the knowledge of indigo popped up nearly simultaneously on both continents? Or had there been some sort of still-unknown trade between the two? Or was it aliens?
An illustration of what life would have been like in ancient India. There are bits of indigo dye and fabrics in the foreground.

Traditionally, it has been believed that the Indus Valley - or Harappan - Civilization (c. 3300-1300 BCE) was the birthplace of indigo. Situated strategically the area of modern Pakistan and northwest India, this was a highly-advanced trading culture that reached across their known world. They were peers of ancient Greece and Rome and introduced indigo to that Mediterranean world sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century. In fact, the Greeks gave indigo its name - “indikon”, meaning “from India. 

A hand holding indigo dye in a cake-like form.
The Indus Valley people didn’t just produce indigo; they elevated the weaving and dyeing of fabrics to an art form. This naturally made their textiles an in-demand commodity. They traded prepared indigo dye as well, but the knowledge of how to make blue from a green plant with pink flowers was a closely guarded secret within families. In order to transport the dye, and maintain their monopoly, the prepared indigo was shipped in hard, dry blocks that looked more like a mineral than a plant product. Even after the Indus Civilization died out, India remained the source of indigo; it was rare and highly prized elsewhere. It wasn’t until the Age of Exploration (1400s-1600s) that European nations were able to acquire a steady supply from India. And as they plundered the New World, the dazzling blue colors and quality of the indigo fabric there became nearly as desired as the golds and gems.Watch this well-made short video for more on the history and spread of indigo.

A portrait of a Taureg man with his face mostly covered.
Taureg Man

As indigo moved along the trade routes, people naturally learned how to make it with their local varieties of the indigo plant. People around the globe adopted the wearing of this color as a part of their identity. Many still do, like the Tuareg (the Blue Men of the Sahara) and the Yoruba of Western Africa, and the Dong of China. When indigo reached Japan around the 10th century AD, they adopted it with their characteristic intensity. Indigo is known as aizome there and the creation of indigo-dyed fabric is a highly-regarded, yet fading, artisanal skill

Three people hand dyeing indigo in China. The two on the left are reaching into vats full of blue liquid.
While growing indigo is fairly straight-forward, making the dye is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. First the leaves are fermented (not soaked) in vats, often in-ground to easily regulate the temperature inside. Then additional components are added to warm up the mix and oxidize the indigo. This is when the blue color begins to emerge. In can take months to complete the fermenting and oxidation process, and then the wringing out, drying and possibly re-emerging the fabric proceeds. The darker the indigo, the deeper the blue, and the longer it takes. Here is much more on the dyeing process.

So why have millions of people across millennia gone to all the effort it takes to make this dye? It creates undoubtedly beautiful colors, but it also imbues fabric with some amazing qualities.
It makes fabrics softer: When added to cotton, it makes a fabric that gets softer with washing. Indigo only binds to external parts of the cotton, so each wash strips away a little of the indigo with some of the dye. The color fades a little, but the fabric is softer. People who spend a lot of time in the same clothes would find this especially desirable.
It has insect repellent properties: The elites in ancient Egypt slept under indigo-dyed mosquito nets and in Japan field workers and arborists still wear traditonal indigo to keep the bugs away. 
A collage of different people wearing indigo cloth working outdoors.

It's antibacterial: It has been widely used to soothe and treat skin condition like eczema. In Japan, samurai would wear it under their armor to stave off wound infections.
It controls body odors: This is clearly another advantage for someone who is wearing, and working in, the same clothes for long periods of time. It may also explain why they used it for shrouds in Ancient Egypt.
It’s fire-retardant: Japanese firefighters draped themselves in indigo for protection. Supposedly it works up to 1500°F. I wonder how they came to that conclusion 1000 years ago?
It dyes hair: Because some ancient people were as vain as modern ones can be. 

A variety of indigo cloth creations hanging outside to dry.
And since there are always non-believers despite thousands of years of practical knowledge, many of the above “claims” have been backed up by modern scientific testing.An anime cartoon character of a girl with blue hair and clothing.

Sadly, after so many years of people loving it, indigo finally went into decline when the German company BASF created a synthetic version in 1897. Thankfully  it’s still appeciated by many people.

 Submitted by Pam

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Plants With Romance

An illustration of a tree with black bark and pink and red hearts for foliage. It also says Happy Valentine's Day.

The traditional plant gift on Valentine’s Day is, of course, the rose. More specifically, red roses. But, what about blazing a new trail and give a living plant? All these plants have love-related names, and they will last a lot longer than those cut flowers. After all, who can forget a Forget-Me-Not? 

Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis)

A close-up of the dangling, pink and white flowers of the Bleeding Heart plant.
In early spring and summer, the delicate arching branches of this elegant perennial fill with puffy heart-shaped petals that have protruding white inner petals. Most commonly the outer petals are pink, but there are some all-white versions. The Bleeding Heart is native to countries in Northern Asia (Siberia, Korea, Northern China and Japan) and North America. Here is a video with more information on this garden favorite.

Hands with red nail polish holding a black laquer box with the Japanese  kanji symbol for love on it.
Fun Fact: In Japan there is a legend about a man who falls deeply in love with a beautiful woman and spends everything he has on gifts trying to win her. The hard-hearted woman takes the gifts but rejects him. Penniless and heartbroken, he stabs himself in the heart. The cool thing about this story is that it can be told by using the various parts of the flower – see that here.

Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Freshly picked blue and yellow forget-me-nots.
These popular plants have grey-green, hairy stems and an abundance of little flowers that can bloom throughout the growing season. To me, these flowers look like the typical flower that children draw; but their name comes from two Greek words: “mus” for “mouse and “otis” for “ears”, so others must think they look like mouse ears. These flowers are generally blue with yellow centers, but with 50 species in the family you’ll find pink and white variations as well. Forget-Me-Not flowers are relatively scent-free during the day, but at night they become very fragrant. This plant carries much symbolism, read more about it here.

A man with dark hair wearing armor on the left and a wioman withe red hair wearing a red dress on the right.

Fun Fact: As the story goes, a German knight was strolling along the Danube River with his ladylove when he went to pick some of these little blue flowers for her. He ended up in the water and was taken by the strong current. As he was being swept away, he called out “Forget me not!”. 

Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus Caudatus)

A close-up of the red flowers spilled from green leaves.An Aztec dancer in Mexico City wearing elaborate regalia.And since the path of love is anything but smooth, I present the Loves Lies Bleeding. This large annual has small, blood-red flowers that spill out from bright green leaves. This show-stopper makes a great ornamental plant, but it is also edible and has a plethora of medicinal uses. A native of the western hemisphere, It be traced back 7-8,000 years and was a domesticated grain crop 6,000 years ago. Watch this video to see how to cook amaranth. To the Victorians, this plant symbolized hopeless love, while others have seen it as a representation of Christ’s wounds on the cross.

“Fun” Fact: Amaranth was a staple food of the Aztecs, but it was also used ritualistically. They would honor their god of sun and war, Huitzilopochtli, by making little statues of him from human blood and amaranth grains. Which were then considered a real treat and gobbled down enthusiastically. Read mire about the Aztecs and amaranth here.

Closeip of the bright pink and orange berries of th Hearts-A-Bursting plant.

Hearts-A-Bursting (Euonymus americanus)

A drawing of a finger hovering over a spindle with threads in it.This deciduous shrub is native to the east coast of the US, from Florida all the way to Canada. The flowers of this plant are fairly non-descript; it’s the showy fruit that gives it is name. When the fruit appears it’s glossy red, with a warty strawberry-like texture. As it becomes mature, the fruit opens to expose a glossy, almost neon-orange berry. All parts of this plant are poisonous and should not be ingested by humans. It is a favorite of wildlife, however, and they can eat it with impunity.

Fun Fact: The European version of this plant, Euonymus europaeus, is known as the Spindletree because its spines were used to make the sharp spindles on spinning wheels. In the tale of Sleeping Beauty, she pricks her finger on her spinning wheel and falls asleep - or into a coma. This came from the once-popular belief that the wood was so poisonous that even the smallest cut could cause comas and death.

Lad’s Love (Artemisia Abrotanum)

Cloe-uo of hands grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle.Close-up of the foliage from a Lad's Love plant.This herbaceous shrub grows to be about 3’ x 3’ and has aromatic and bushy fern-like leaves. Lad’s Love is originally from southern Europe, but it was first introduced to our continent way back in the 1600s. This plant has a ridiculous number of common names, but Southernwood is one of the most widely used. People enjoy this plant just for its lemony, camphor-like scent and lovely foliage, but over the years it has been used for everything from pest control to medicine. One if it’s common names is “Maiden’s Ruin’, which reflects one of its rumored qualities – it’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Check out this video for one man’s adults-only take on the smell.

A gif of hands planting, watering and growing hearts in a flowering pot.
Fun Fact: According to folklore in southern Europe along the Mediterranean, teenage boys can kickstart their beard growth by using a facial ointment made from the ashes of this plant, olive oil and rosemary.

Happy Valentine’s Day to one and all!

Submitted by Pam

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