What is Madder?

Mary McMahon

Madder is an evergreen plant native to the Old World. This plant has historically been used as a source of animal fodder, but it was commercially important for its red root, which was used to manufacture a dye known as madder or rose madder. The color varied from a medium to intense red with a rosy tint. It was one of the first dyes to be duplicated synthetically, in the form of alizarin crimson in the 1860s.

Silk cocoons. Madder can be used to dye silk.
Silk cocoons. Madder can be used to dye silk.

People have been using madder for centuries. Archaeological evidence shows that the Egyptians used it as a textile dye, and that it may also have been used in cosmetics. The color also appeared in Ancient Greece and Rome. It was one of the most wide-spread red dyes in use in Europe, leading people to compare people's lips to madder in verse, since the color was so commonly known.

Rose madder can be used to dye leather.
Rose madder can be used to dye leather.

Madder can be used on cotton, leather, wool, and silk. A mordant must be used in order to fix the dye, however, or it will run. Mordants bind with dyes to turn them insoluble, ensuring that they will bind to the material being dyed, but they do not prevent fade and eventual washout. In the case of this dye, alum was a commonly used mordant.

In addition to being used as a textile dye, madder was also employed in some traditional herbals, in the belief that it could be used to treat intestinal complaints and jaundice. The stem, flowers, roots, and seeds were all used in medical tinctures and preparations which could be swallowed or applied topically, depending on the formula. Many people thought the plant was good for the skin, especially in women, perhaps because it would have left a faint red blush behind after application.

Like other natural dyes, madder can be extremely inconsistent. Depending on how the roots are grown and handled, the color can vary, and even when a mordant is used, it is often not colorfast. As a result, most people prefer to use the synthetic form today when they want to create the distinctive rose hue of madder. However, natural pigment is still available in specialty dye shops, for people who like to experiment with traditional dyes, and enterprising crafters can also make their own dye, assuming they can find wild plants or those under cultivation, which can be a bit of a challenge.

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Discussion Comments


@TimeTheorist - I've seen rose madder hues that were considerably "pinker" than what you have described. In fact, I've seen a color that much more closely resembled hot pink called "rose madder". I think that traditionally, rose madder hue is supposed to resemble the color you've described. I guess it just goes to show how much variation there is amongst dyes, even in today's industrial market.


@lotusfeet - I can. It's a very deep red. It's not so much a dark hue as a deep one (when compared to thinner rose reds and darker crimson hues). When rose madder paint is thinned out a bit, it has traces of a very light purple in it, which I suspect helps to give the color such a deep tone. So, simply put, it is a middle range red color with a very slight purplish undertone.


What does the now standard modern "rose madder" hue look like? Can someone describe it to me?


Thank you for this article. I've used Rose Madder in my paintings for a number of years and love the color, just regret the tendency for it to fade.

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