Madder – Day 20 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Madder – פּוּאָה (puah)

Wild (or common) Madder (Rubia peregrina) photographed at Llandulas North Wales, 16th July 2008. Image and source:

There are a couple of reasons why I have included Wild (or common) Madder (Rubia peregrina)  for this wildlife challenge. The first is very personal. I have mentioned in earlier posts that my mother was an avid botanist and, for some reason, I associate the plant with holiday forays into the country. Distribution of this plant is restricted predominantly to the south west regions in the UK – see the helpful interactive distribution map produced by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) and so was not common to where we lived. Consequently, if we happened to by holidaying or visiting the south west or Wales, spotting ‘Madder’ was very much on her ‘botanising list.’ There we would follow Keble Martin’s (a battered copy of his book was Mum’s botanical bible) cryptic clues:

Stems climbing by downward prickles: leaves shining: flo. yellowish, 5 cleft; fr. black. In hedgerows near the sea and on sea cliffs, chiefly in S. and S.W. England, Wales and W. Ireland. Flo. June-Aug.

Keble Martin (1969: plate 42)

I should also mention at this point that, in the UK, we also have resident the Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis) – which is much commoner.

Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis). Image: P. Shannon. Source:

However, there is also another reason why I want to recognise the place of ‘madder’ (probably Rubia tinctorum) within biblical literature and tradition. It exemplifies the way in which the environment and the species it sustains, permeates our lives to such an extent that we are often unaware of it. If you try to look ‘madder’ up in the Bible concordance you would not find it. I have, as yet, to find any English translation in which it occurs. And, unless you consult the work of botanical scientists like Michael Zohary, you wont find any references to it in the multitude of books about plants in the Bible.

(Common or wild) Madder (Rubia peregrina). Image: L.Rooney. Source:

Hiding in plain sight

Puah (פּוּאָה), or its variants pua or phuvah, occurs 4 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and if you look it up in Hebrew lexicons or dictionaries, you will probably read that the meaning is something like ‘splendid.’ Each of its occurrences it appears as a proper name and, in English versions, it is left untranslated.

After Abimelech, Tola son of Puah son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, who lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim, rose to deliver Israel. 

Judges 10:1 (NRSV) (emphasis added)

However, Zohary (1986:191) argues that puah, puvah or fuah is the Hebrew name for dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum) with the plant dyers madder, which is fuwwa in Arabic.

Rubia tinctorum, showing the red roots that are used for the dye alizarine. Plate from Franz Eugen Köhler (1897), Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen. Source:

Zohary (1986:191) states that Dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a common plant that is cultivated in all the Near Eastern countries, often in separate plots or olive groves. It is principally valued for its red roots, which, when ground, produce the red dye, alizarine.

Photograph of the red roots of the madder (Rubia tinctorum). Source:

Dyes and dyers

The use of dyes for clothing and leather goods was an important and widely used practice. Carroll (2015:239-240) refers to the numerous instances in biblical literature where dyed goods are mentioned. Material remains of garments show that, during the Early Dynastic period in Ur (Mesopotamia), women were buried in red clothes, probably dyed using madder. Furthermore, Carroll (2015:240-241) notes that texts from Ur also mention red wool and that red-dyed leather and matting have been recovered from Pre-Dynastic Egyptian tombs.

There is an interesting, if rather wry, reference to the occupational hazards related to working with madder dye. It is found in the Papyrus Lansing (also known as The Satire of the Trades), a papyrus written in the 12th Dynasty (1878-1839) BCE by the scribe Nebmare-nakht to his apprentice Wenemdiamun. In it he extols the virtues of the scribe’s life by contrasting it to the care-worn, burdensome and, sometimes, dangerous life offered by pursuing other occupations. The reference here is to the cobbler, who is working with tanned leather (hence the smell), a task which also appears to include dyeing.

The cobbler mingles with vats. His odor is penetrating. His hands are red with madder, like one who is smeared with blood. He looks behind him for the kite, like one whose flesh is exposed.

Payrus Lansing
Papyrus Lansing (The Satire of the Trades), 12th Dynasty. Original image by The Trustees of the British Museum.. Source:

As techniques for dyeing evolved, they were often viewed as closely guarded trade-secrets. However, Pliny the Elder lets us into a few of the secrets in his discussion of the murex, a sea snail from which purple dye can be extracted (The Natural History.60).

Carroll (2015) describes the typical process of dyeing:

Dyeing took place in small stone vats that were generally about two feet square and two feet deep, examples of which have been found in Palestine. Because dye was expensive, excess dye was carefully recovered after the dyeing process was completed. Wool was dyed before being made into cloth.

Carroll (2015:243)
Iron Age (8th century BCE) dyeing vats excavated at Tell Beit Mirsim, Israel. The rim around the R/H vat is thought to facilitate excess dye to drain back into the vat. Image: American Colony (Jerusalem) (1926). Source:

Second century C.E. textiles found in the Bar Kochba cave at Nahal Hever, include thirty-four different shades of coloured wool that analysis shows were produced from three basic dyes: Yellow (saffron), blue (indigo) and red (madder) (Carroll, 2015:245).

The popularity and importance of dyeing and the necessary cultivation and harvesting of the natural sources of those dyes, makes Zohary’s (1986) claim that the plant, puah, also became used as a personal proper noun highly plausible. We only have to think of English equivalents like ‘Dyer’, ‘Smith’ or ‘Oake’, ‘Ash’, ‘Heseltine’, etc.

Whether we can ever be certain in identifying use of puah in the biblical literature with the (or ‘a’) plant remains moot. Nevertheless, references to dyed material and the practice of dying garments, as we all as evidence for the use of alizarine from madder as an resource indicate that this was a common but important plant within the biblical world. Perhaps too common to be mentioned (especially within a high-context society like ancient Israel). Nevertheless, this little herb, with its tiny, insignificant, pale yellow-green, flowers, was very much part of the landscape and lives of these people. In this respect, it reflects much of our modern interaction with the myriad species found with our environment: It is there, it is often unseen until we look a little closer, it is needed.

Madder today

Although Zohary (op cit) notes that as a result of the production of synthetic dyes the cultivation of madder has largely reduced, madder is still cultivated and used for this purpose.

Apparently, madder is easy to cultivate in the UK. In fact it can be so prolific that some experts advise growing it in containers rather than straight into the ground (see: Baessler, 2018).

Ashley Walker (2017) has produced a really helpful and comprehensive webpage on this plant that takes you from its cultivation through to processing its roots and making dye: Growing Madder.

Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge


Baessler, L. (2018) ‘Madder Plant Care: How To Grow Madder In The Garden‘. Available at: (accessed 05/05/2019)

Carroll, S. (2015) ‘Dyeing’. In. Yamauchi, E.M. and Wilson, M.R. (eds.) Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity: Volume II. De-H. (2015). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. 239-247.

Keble Martin, W. (1969) The Concise British Flora in Colour: With nomenclature edited and revised by Douglas H. Kent. 2nd edn. London: Ebury Press and Michael Joseph.

Walker, A. (2017) ‘Growing Madder.’ Available at: (accessed on 05/05/2019)

Zohary, M. (1986) Plants of the Bible: A complete handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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