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One for the woad


by James Alexander-Sinclair

When I was at school we used to sing a song (to the tune of Men of Harlech) which went "Tramp up Snowdon, with our woad on. Never mind if we get rained or snowed on!"


Woad plant, Isatis tinctoriaWhen I was at school we used to sing a song (to the tune of Men of Harlech) which went "Tramp up Snowdon, with our woad on. Never mind if we get rained or snowed on!" It was a sort of homage to our hardy ancestors running around painted with blue woad body paint terrorising Romans. The plant from which this comes is Isatis tinctoria and, oddly, it is not even faintly blue, but very yellow.

I was reminded of this by a quick preview visit to Jekka McVicar's stand at this year's Chelsea Flower Show. Jekka is the most fabulous nurserywoman and her displays almost always win gold medals (13 at Chelsea and 61 in total). This year looks as if it going to be another corker: particularly as she says that this will be her last self-funded effort.

The woad plant is tall and slightly ungainly (like a new-born giraffe) with acid yellow flowers on tall (almost leafless) stems. Jekka has used them in conjunction with Angelica archangelica (a fabulous biennial that reaches over 2m in height and looks great in all stages of its life from bud to corpse) and with flashes of red field poppy.

Isatis is easily propagated from seed sown in the autumn and can make an interesting and unusual addition to a border. However, should you decide that you want to enter further into the spirit of this historic plant and go for either the full Mel Gibson/Braveheart look, or perhaps just a few balls of wool for a cardigan, then it is my duty to warn of certain things. To get blue dye from the plant is quite hard work: 1kg of Isatis leaves will produce about 2 grams of dye so in order to colour more that a small handkerchief you need to grow a fair few plants. It is a gorgeous colour though.

Jekka also told me that, traditionally, there was a fair bit of urine involved, although I chose not to ask too many questions. There are some things about which a chap doesn't need too much detail.

I am in the Chelsea Gardening Matters Pavilion on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, introducing all manner of horticultural luminaries. Please drop by and say 'hello' if you find yourself at a loose end. Warning: I have no privileged access to any Pimms. Sorry.



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Talkback: One for the woad
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Gardeners' World Web User 21/05/2009 at 18:09

i thought about coming to see you in the Garden Matters thing but then your lack of Pimms put me off.

Gardeners' World Web User 21/05/2009 at 18:09

Ps you were amazing on the telly though

Gardeners' World Web User 21/05/2009 at 18:45

What can I do to make my heavy clay soil more gardeningable? I have tried peat, sand, more peat and manure and still I don`t seem to have made any difference, and could you please give me some advice as to what to do about the incessant and heavy east wind I always seem to have, please?!

Gardeners' World Web User 22/05/2009 at 08:42

I'm relieved that the delicate flowers of woad would be difficult to create from plasticine!

Gardeners' World Web User 22/05/2009 at 11:48

FabMonkeyJellyCherry: (interesting nom de web, by the way). Keep on mulching and add some grit for drainage but above all be not downhearted and only plant stuff that likes clay.

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