A genus of about 60 species of perennials and subshrubs, occurring in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Various species contain pigments, which include alizarin (madder red), purpurin (madder purple), rubiacin (madder orange), and xanthine (madder yellow). These compounds are similar to those in the related Galium aparine (See, Goosegrass) and G. verum (See, Lady's Bedstraw). Rubia tinctorum yields a permanent red dye, known as "Turkey red", traditionally used to color Turkish fezzes, soldiers' uniforms, and hunting jackets, which was originally exported from Turkey for cultivation in the main textile centers of N Europe. The main pigment, alizarin, was synthesized in 1868, reducing demand for the cultivated plant. Though best known as a dye plant, R. tinctorum is used medicinally too; it was mentioned by Pliny (CE23-79) as a cure for jaundice. Rubia cordifolia was first described in Chinese medicine in the Shen Nong Canon of Herbs, during the Han dynasty (206BCE-CE23). It also has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. The whole plant is used to dye fabrics reds or pinks. Mixed with indigo, it produces "Egyptian Purple"; Coptic textiles, c.500CE, were dyed using R. cordifolia. It contains munjistin, an anthraquinone, and pigments purpurin, pseudopurpurin, and purpuroxanthin, which are also found in R. tinctorum; it does not contain alizarin. Rubia is from the Latin ruber, "red", referring to the red dye yielded by these plants.

Perennial climber or scrambler with a red, branched rhizome, and whorls of rough, lanceolate to ovate, stalkless leaves, to 10cm (4in) long. Tiny pale yellow-green to cream flowers are borne in loose clusters in summer and autumn, followed by fleshy, red-brown to black berries, 6mm (¼in) in diameter.

Common Name:
Botanical Name:
Rubia tinctorum
Native Location:
SE Europe, W and C Asia.
Well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Rubia tinctorum prefers light, dry soil, and thrives in alkaline conditions.
By seed sown when ripe; by division in spring.
Rhizomes and roots are lifted in autumn from plants at least three years old, and peeled and dried for decoctions and powders. Chinese herbalists also lift roots in spring. Whole plants, including roots, are lifted from two-year-old plants in spring or autumn for dye production.
25cm-1m (10-36in)
Internal use of madders stains urine, milk, and bones red
Parts Used:
An antiseptic, diuretic, laxative herb that stimulates the liver and uterus, and relaxes spasms.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for kidney and bladder stones. Used in N African folk medicine for anemia and blood diseases, and as an aphrodisiac; also as a tonic, appetizer, and expectorant. Externally for wounds, ulcers, and sciatica.
Ecomonic Uses:
Dried roots are used as a source of natural red, pink, orange, apricot, and purple dyes. Alizarin is used in making dyes, and yields pigments for inks and paints.
The Encylopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright © 1995, 2001. Dorling Kindersley Limited. pp 349-350