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Celtic war-paint plant comes into flower

Our vegetable garden is largely given over to edibles but we've saved one corner for this yellow-flowered plant with interesting historical connections. This is woad, from which dye - blue not yellow - was extracted for Celtic warriors to paint their faces with in times of war. The idea was to try to put off the other side, whether they be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans or English. The blue-green leaves hint at the colour within but it is only released after the plant is steeped in an alkaline solution. There is also a process involving making the woad into balls and leaving bacteria to do the work. The dye, indigo, would also have been widely used to colour fabric right up until the mid-19th century, when synthetic dyes took over. Today there has been something of a revival in the use of natural plant-based dyes in craft fabric making.

Woad is immortalised in the traditional song Ancient Britons:

What's the good of wearing braces

Vests and pants and boots with laces

Spats or hats you buy in places

Down in Brompton Road

What's the use of shirts of cotton

Studs that always get forgotten

These affairs are simply rotten

Better far is woad

Woad's the stuff to show, men

Woad to scare your foemen

Boil it to a brilliant hue

And rub it on your back and your abdomen

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